Saturday, May 6, 2017

Making Connections with British Literature (Survey II)

This week marked the conclusion of the spring 2017 version of British Literature Survey II, a course I teach every spring here at Assumption College.

A few years ago I became interested in some research on human learning which suggested that students learned material more deeply when they could forge connections between the course material and things they had learned or experienced in other contexts. After reflecting on that research, and how I could use it to help my students learn, two years ago I began using connection notebooks in the survey course, which covers material that can often seem remote from the lives of 21st century American students.

As I explained in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education and in my book Small Teaching, these are blue books that the students bring to class every day.  At the end of class, once a week, I ask them to pull out their connection notebook and write a one-paragraph response to a question designed to help them connect what we discussed that day with something outside of the class.  Questions might include:

  • How do today's readings connect with something you have learned in another course?
  • Which of the works we read today has the most significance for your personally, and why?
  • Have you ever encountered the theme we discussed today in another book, or a movie or television show?

Sometimes I leave a little time for us to discuss their answers, but at other times I simply use this as a closing class activity.  I collect the notebooks three times per semester, and the students receive a very low-stakes grade just for completing them--no right or wrong answers in the connection notebooks.  I absolutely love reading them, though; seeing the fascinating connections that students make gives me fresh enthusiasm for the works we are reading. I always vow not to allot much grading time to them, but find myself writing appreciative comments to almost every student in spite of my intentions.

This semester I ended with the following question: Of all the works we have read this semester, which one was the most interesting or meaningful to you?  Here's what the responses looked like, in order of popularity:

"We Are Seven," by William Wordsworth (6 votes)

The students love this poem.  I do a dramatic reading of it early in the semester, trying to convey the frustration of the speaker with the persistent little girl in his final lines.  For their final semester project, a group of students videotaped a staged reading of the poem in a nearby cemetery, complete with a blooper reel.

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (5 votes)

Especially in the wake of the 2016 election, the students found this novel's morality lesson on the evolutionary consequences of income inequality a fascinating story.

"Goblin Market," by Christina Rossetti (3)

This one appeals to the symbol hunters in the class. Since the goblin fruit in the poem has multiple possible symbolic meanings, we spend a whole class period considering a variety of possibilities, and the students work in groups to come up with lines that would support the different readings. Always a fun, interactive class.

"Professions for Women" and "A Room of One's Own," by Virginia Woolf (3 combined votes)

In spite of the difficulty of Woolf's prose, a number of students really connected with Woolf's arguments about killing the "Angel in the House," and with her story about what would have happened to Shakespeare's sister if she had possessed the same level of talent as the immortal Bard (hint: it would not have been a happy ending).

"No Thank You, John," by Christina Rossetti (2 votes)

Two students really connected with Rossetti's brief poem in which the speaker tells the man who is pursuing her that he should get a grip--they'll never be anything more than friends.

"Shooting an Elephant," by George Orwell (2 votes)

Happy to see a couple of students sharing my love for Orwell. One student commented that it was interesting to see how a British colonizer felt so conflicted about his work, when she had assumed that the British colonizers were just evil racists.

"Araby," by James Joyce

Shocked to see this on the list; the student explained that she had read it in another class and not seen much there, but within the context of the Irish history we had covered she saw it in a whole new way.

"The Garden of Love," by William Blake

Students are surprised to see the conflict between spirituality and organized religion emerging two hundred years ago in a poem by William Blake; they assumed this was an entirely modern phenomenon.  Perhaps students at a Catholic college also empathize with a speaker complaining about "priests in black gowns" who are binding his natural "joys and desires."

"Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold

Another one in which we discuss the gradual decline of religious faith in modern Britain.

"The Waiter's Wife," by Zadie Smith

The short story which eventually became White Teeth, which this student was reading in another class.

"To a Louse," by Robert Burns

So happy that a Burns poem made it on the list.  The student commented that this one had a timeless message: no matter how great you think you are, everyone still can suffer from life's little indignities.

I will definitely continue to repeat this question at the end of future survey courses, to see if the responses change over time. Whether or not this question produces any additional learning for the students, which I hope it does (in that they will have written in depth about one final work as they are preparing for the final exam), it will prove very helpful to me in recognizing how I can help each new group of students find meaningful connections to the works we are reading.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Teaching Like Aristotle

I count myself as an amateur enthusiast of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, which makes me fun to hang around with at parties.  This particular interest of mine began when I took a course in Aristotle's thought as an undergraduate philosophy major, and I have since returned to his work at various points over the course of my life for reflection and guidance.  In the wake of the recent presidential election, amidst the swirling storm of negative emotions and overheated arguments that flew around my social media accounts, I took refuge in his work once more, and re-read both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  

Image result for aristotleThis was my first sustained re-reading of these works since I began writing books about teaching and learning almost a decade ago.  As a result, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the ways in which Aristotle's philosophy can provide us with some insightful reminders about how we can best help students learn, now almost 2400 years after it was first presented to his students.  It adds an interesting layer of complexity to this enterprise when we note that all of Aristotle's works come to us essentially in the form of rough drafts or notes from his students; although he was apparently a prolific writer on almost every subject imaginable, from biology to metaphysics, none of his finished works have survived.

The concluding section of the Politics actually directly addresses education, but I found that material less compelling than three more general principles of his thinking which strike me as still relevant for our pedagogical conversations today.

1) Learning from frequent practice. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addressed the question of how people become virtuous or vicious.  He was responding in part to arguments from Plato, and to more general theories about the source of human ethics.  He argues, for example, against at least two different theories: that people are born virtuous or vicious, or that one can be a virtuous person while still doing occasionally vicious things.  Instead, he suggests, virtues develop in us slowly and gradually as we make the conscious decision to perform virtuous acts:

"We . . . take on the virtues by first being at work in them, just as also in other things, namely the arts; the things that one who has learned them needs to do, we learn by doing; and people become, say, housebuilders by building houses or harpists by playing the harp. So too, we become just by doing things that are just, temperate by doing things that are temperate, and courageous by doing things that are courageous."

In other words, a person who performs courageous actions gradually becomes a courageous person, and his slowly developing courageous character makes each new act of courage easier and more likely for him.  Later commentators on Aristotle’s work have referred to this as the virtuous cycle: the more we perform virtuous acts, the easier it becomes to perform virtuous acts.  Our actions develop our character, and our character then gives birth to our actions.

This sounds to me a whole like what we know today about the virtue of frequent practice for learning.  If we want students to learn how to think like philosophers, we can't stand at the front of the room and philosophize for them. We have to create the context in which they can practice thinking like philosophers. The same holds true for any cognitive skill we want students to develop. Would Aristotle have been an advocate for the flipped classroom?  Perhaps he might not have gone that far, but he certainly represents an early advocate for the modern principle that we "learn by doing."

2) Listening to our learners.  Aristotle's Ethics begins with the argument that human beings are meant for happiness, and so sets out to inquire what makes us happy.  But instead of simply trying to logic this out from first principles, he recounts what people say about the subject.  This happens over and over again in both the Ethics and the Politics. Aristotle always begins his inquiries by considering what people have had to say about the subject in the past, and he searches for bits of truth and good ideas in these surveys of popular opinion.  In Book One of the Ethics, for example, he concludes an overview of different theories of happiness with this sentence:

"Some of these things are said by many people and from ancient times, others by a few well-reputed men, and it is reasonable that neither of these groups would be wholly mistaken, and that they would be right in some one point at least or even in most of them."

It seems likely to me that, in his actual lectures, Aristotle solicited these opinions from his students, in some form of a dialogue or discussion, but we can't know that for sure.  In any case, Aristotle reminds us that we can view the knowledge that students bring into our classes as harmful and mistaken, ready for our correcting--or we can view it as the starting point for our inquires together.  When we view the prior knowledge of our students in this light, the classroom becomes a community of learners working together to increase all of our understanding, rather than a forum in which one person imparts knowledge to the many.

In the Politics Aristotle refers explicitly to the idea of a community of learners, and the power of their collective knowledge, with the metaphor of a banquet: "And as a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better judge of many things than an individual."

One of the most important principles I have learned from the literature of teaching and learning in higher education has been to listen to what learners bring into our classrooms.  Rather than simply starting a new lesson by offering students a box of content, we should take a few minutes to address the fact that our students always bring folk theories about our subject matter into the room, and that their prior knowledge can provide us with building blocks for what we want them to learn.

3) Remembering context.  Over and over again, in both the Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle reminds us that general principles always fail to account for the particulars.  General principles must be put into practice in specific contexts, and those contexts require further reflection, modification, or even rejection of the general principle.  He addresses this specifically with respect to education in the final book of the Ethics:

"And further, educations tailored to teach person are better than those that are given in common, just as in the case of medical treatment, for in general rest and fasting are beneficial for someone with a fever, but perhaps not for some particular person, and a boxing instructor probably does not impose the same way of fighting on all people."

Most of us don't have the time to tailor an individual education to every student we encounter, but this principle should remind us of two important things.  First, the general principles that helped us (i.e., faculty members) learn might not work with our students.  Just because we learned best from reading and listening to lectures (as I did, and I loved it), that does not mean that all students learn best from those methods. So we have to continue to reflect on our methods, and vary them in order to ensure that we are providing educations that make sense with the particular contexts of our students, and not the students we used to be.

Second, educational research that works in one context might not work in every other context. If you spend enough time reading and analyzing the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, you will eventually realize that no magic solution of any kind exists for student learning.  The particular contexts of our individual classrooms contain so many confounding elements for any one teaching technique, however well-researched, that we have to remain continuously reflective about our practice, and continuously alive to the possibility of change.  That can be frustrating, but it can also be intellectually stimulating, and keep us thinking and evolving through a whole teaching career.

Note: all quotations from the Ethics come from this edition, translated by Joe Sachs; quotations from the Politics from this edition, translated by Richard McKeon.