Grace, too

I write just three days out from submitting grades for the Spring 2021 semester – the end to an incredible 15 months of teaching and learning. And for the first time since March 2020, I returned to campus. I am now fully engaged in this transition to my role as director of faculty development and contemplating this very moment – this very opportunity.

Since my last dispatch, I have been blogging on the center’s internal blog about end-of-semester engagement techniques, the promotion of the center’s summer activities, and tips on rethinking assessments. I have spent the last few months co-facilitating a virtual, but wildly rewarding, mentoring program for new faculty and instructors, as well working along-side the outgoing to director to absorb as much of their wisdom and experience.

I also chair the advisory body to our Center, and in closing the term I was entrusted to make some big moves – including re-envisioning and re-writing the only grant program offered through the Center to promote faculty partnerships in teaching and learning.

And there was teaching happening, too.

Yet throughout all of this – managed from my kitchen counter due to the pandemic displacements – there has been this laser-like focus on the future – both for me as director and the Center itself. This was by far my most challenging and difficult year in higher education – even more than in 2010, my first year on faculty teaching all new preps and living 7 hours away from my life partner.

But it was also an empowering semester. I learned so much about myself, about my teaching, about the resilience of students, and the contributions and areas of growth of myself and my peers. I am doing everything I can to remember those moments because, to me, they scream of grace. Grace for my students, grace for my peers, grace for my supervisors, and grace for myself.

Nothing was perfect about this pandemic in high education; no one ordered it up, and no one crushed it in their response – I know I did not! But the question is now how do we move on from here? How do we use these semesters and their layered teachable moments, and move forward (and move up) from here? Here is asking that I (we) newly develop with grace.

Bread, Rubik’s Cube, and Intellectual Humility

I started baking bread about 3 years ago. I have always loved bread but baking it myself was something that proved to be elusive. Then life gave me a serious set of twists and turns, and I decided that, to focus my mind and my spirit, I would give it a solid try. My birthday falls near Mother’s Day, so in that spirit I enrolled my mother and I in a bread baking class at a cookery store near her home. From that moment forward, I have been on a self-taught bread journey that has been equal parts frustrating, rewarding, humbling and delicious.

What made me think about my bread baking was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a learning experiment teaching professors how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. The article details the work of two professors, Lew Ludwig and Ben Haywood and their faculty development workshop between the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters to teach professors how to solve this 3 x 3 cuboid puzzle. The pair of faculty-developers set-up an online course complete with video lectures, written guides, a discussion board, and much more – just like an online, asynchronous course we could design for our students.

To learn to solve the Rubik’s Cube was, however, only the obvious reward for completing the course (of which only two-thirds of the registrants accomplished). The real point of the class was to reveal the phenomenon known as the expert’s blind spot. When we know a subject deeply, and devote your life to its study, we tend to forget just how difficult it was when we first sat as undergraduate students and struggled with the same content. This is exactly what happened with the faculty who participated in this challenge – similar patterns of frustration as our students often experience when learning new, often difficult material. For the professors, the real lesson is that of intellectual humility.

my bread box, the keeper of the loaves

Bread and the Rubik’s Cube are seemingly different media, but they are both puzzles, they require study, a focused mind, patience, and perseverance. As I am learning bread, I take to the task as any academic would: books, articles, videos, and many empirical observations (and at last count 7 notebooks filled with notes). I had started with baking traditional breads using packaged yeast, but once I thought I had the hang of it (which I did not, and still do not) I made the leap to sourdough (natural yeast). This phase has been an incredible journey in humility because the success of every loaf of sourdough is the result of time, temperature, temperament, how you knead the dough (by hand or mixer?), how you let it rest, and then rise, and knowing (guessing) when it is ready to bake!

There is also an entire lexicon in bread baking including words like hydration, fermentation, and autolyse. There are formulas for the desired dough temperature and the baker’s percentage, there is a glut of specialized gadgets for working with dough, and countless techniques, tips, tricks, and failures to learn from online and on social media.

I teach statistics to students who want to be social workers and police officers, so I am continually confronting a gap between my enthusiasm for the standard error and sampling distributions with students who go out of their way on the first day of class to let me know that they hate math. It is my job to help them on their statistics journey while trying to preserve the integrity of the discipline. But I am also a sociologist, not a professional baker; while I may have a different level of enthusiasm for baking bread than my students do for learning statistics, I can image the professional baker’s confusion over my lack of fervor for using the stretch-and-fold technique in dough development.

Every loaf I bake is a reminder that I am just getting started – and I need to be patient with myself…and my students. Every loaf is an opportunity to fail – and that is the point – learning how to learn and confront my expert blind spot – reminds me what it is like being (and to embrace being) a frustrated, confused, anxious novice.

Just last weekend I pulled a loaf of bread out of my oven that was as flat as a pancake – mimicking the topography of Kansas rather than an airy loaf. Clearly, not a good result in terms of bread, but a perfect lesson in this on-going journey of intellectual humility.

Moving Forward: Teaching Philosophies in a Post-COVID Era

“Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who you are – so you can more wisely build the future” – Paulo Freire

Across higher education as well as my own institution, the question of what college will look like “post-COVID” is front and center. Any week the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and several other related sources publish articles, op-eds, and interviews on our post-COVID realities.

We have learned there is not much we can control in terms of the pandemic itself, governmental responses, or even how universities have met this moment. But as we emerge as faculty from this year of education triage, I have been thinking about what this means for myself and my peers who put the “education” in higher education.

As an educator who thrives on face-to-face classroom interactions with my students, this past year of isolation and online learning has been a challenge for me and my pedagogy. As I devoured any online training, research article, or book on online education, I found myself thinking (and rethinking) my own approach to teaching. In this tour-de-force, I was recommended a recently published article by Beatty, Leigh, and Dean (2020) on the connections of teaching philosophy statements and student learning. You might remember that teaching philosophy statement as the singular document you wrote as a piece of your application package (and have never given it another thought), or perhaps you revisit it annually when pulling together materials for your evaluation, or maybe it is printed and hanging on your office wall. Wherever one might fall in this continuum, perhaps we might revisit that statement of our personal values, connections with our discipline and university, and our “classroom” practices.

In this article, the authors reflect back on a decade of their work using a simple card-sort exercise to help faculty discover their own teaching philosophies. The exercise simply asks participants to sort cards with words or phrases such as “interdisciplinary” or “learning-by-doing” based on how the participant feels that card represents their own ideas about teaching and learning. On the reverse side of each card is the name of a theorist or approach to teaching and learning; the cards that best match with the participant can act as a catalyst for further work to explore more deeply and formally execute a philosophy of teaching statement. The cards that are chosen, through several rounds of guided imagery and written drafts, lead to a more formal statement.

Why is this statement important? Whether created with this card-sorting method or some other reflexive means, Beatty, Leigh, and Duncan (2020, pp. 538-9) argue, “Having a teaching philosophy based on lived experience as well as our dreams for the future allows a liberating way to negotiate the terms of our engagement with students in real time, iteratively, and based creatively on our students’ needs…In all of our experiences thus far, our choices of modalities are much less important than our orientation to supplying a high-quality learning experience for our students.” As the authors show, these statements – and our commitment to them – make us better educators.

This really stuck with me as I think not just about my current reality teaching online, but of my future practice back in the classroom, and as I prepare to transition into my forthcoming role as Director of Faculty Development. In doing so, I have often asked myself, “What is it that I can build on from this past year that can define and describe my agency as a professor and faculty developer? Having survived this moment, what are my holistic views of the teaching process and the interactions between teaching and learning?”

While there is much left to be discovered in the shape and nature of the post-COVID university, perhaps one place we can start – and control – is right back at the basics, that statement of our ongoing personal and professional development. I have learned a lot about my myself, my teaching, and student learning this past year; the challenge is now to take the best of these lessons and evolve moving forward – starting with this teaching philosophy.

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.