American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Reflections of a young professor
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By Anonymous, December 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

I have officially leapt from the frying pan. After something of a nail-biting year on the market at the University of Texas, Austin, I took a job at the end of the summer that unexpectedly opened up at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY. My wife and I were visiting family in Arkansas when I accepted the job; we had two weeks to go back to Austin, pack up our three-bedroom apartment (we have 3 children), and move to Kentucky. Classes started the next week, and I was reassigned classes for which other professors had drafted syllabi and ordered books. So it was a very hectic transition.

In an effort to ease some stress, our department chair assigned me some online teaching, which would allow the ability to work from home more this fall. That’s been very helpful, but it’s also made me acutely aware of the real deficiencies of online education. Some previous blog posts have touted the benefits of careful analysis and reflection that discussion boards can facilitate in an online class. I can see that this kind of use of discussion boards might have some advantages over extemporaneous class discussion. That assumes, however, that the class size stays relatively small. Liberal use of discussion boards for large classes (I’m teaching a course of 60 students) simply generates more grading of written work than is manageable. No doubt this is a problem of class size, not a deficiency unique to distance learning. On the other hand, the limitations of online education accentuate the problems of large class size. Students are more isolated and have even less access to a professor’s help in understanding and processing the material. Inversely, professors are robbed of the ability to spark interest and reflection in students through well-delivered lectures. Students are effectively left, according to Oakeshott’s distinction, to review and memorize what technical knowledge they can, bereft of the practical knowledge they might acquire by observing and learning from a serious teacher.

Of course, it seems that greater isolation is precisely what many students are after. I was surprised to learn that many of my online students are full-time undergrads at MSU, apparently attempting to minimize their investment in general education courses by inserting another degree of remove. Or perhaps they are motivated by the slightly more benign desire for a convenient schedule. Either way, allowing this kind of use of online education serves only to reinforce in students’ minds that nothing particularly important is going on in the classroom. Their ability to jump through educational hoops with the least amount of personal investment possible confirms that this is in fact all they are doing—jumping through hoops. So whatever the legitimate uses of distance learning (and I would be willing to concede that there are some), it’s clear to me that how it is being employed by many students only intensifies its limitations and further undermines the real business of higher education.

On a more positive note, my in-class experiences have been more encouraging. I’ve been pleased with the students’ real desire to learn and their engagement with the material (a lot of this dissimilarity, I realize, is a function of the difference between teaching an intro course and an upper division course for majors). It’s a very satisfying experience to lead students through a set of problems, help them see where the difficulties lie and why they’re important, and to assist them in thinking things through carefully. But I’ve also been struck by what a real challenge good teaching is. I had done enough teaching already (and learned from enough fine teachers) not to expect to be able to step into the classroom and immediately bedazzle a class with my pedagogical artistry. However, I’ve also been amazed at how many stars have to align in order for a class to come off as I’d like it to, and how many of those factors are at times simply beyond my control.

Sometimes I’ll walk into the classroom having over prepared, knowing exactly what I want to get across and how I intend to do it, yet the whole lecture/discussion seems to be a laborious crawl from point A to point B. Other days I’m much less confident about what I’m trying to do, but the ideas just all seem to fall into place, the students get it, and real learning takes place. I know that part of this is just the nature of learning; it’s always peaks and valleys, flashes of insight amidst a lot of muddling through. It also strikes me that this is simply a neophyte’s introduction to acquiring a very complicated skill. At first you have to concentrate on every little detail to get it right, e.g., figuring out at what level to pitch the material, coming up with interesting illustrations, knowing where discussion will be helpful and how to elicit it. It’s easy to fumble the details before their execution becomes second nature. Other times you or the students or both just aren’t “on” that day or for some other reason aren’t fully engaged. Recognizing and figuring out how to effectively counteract those contextual factors takes a lot of work. So I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the labor and practice that being an excellent teacher will require. I’m sure it will get easier as I master the details, but it’s a long-term project.

Over the desk in my study hangs a large needlepoint tapestry of a Bengal tiger that my grandfather stitched when I was a young boy. I’ve come to see the piece as a metaphor for my own work as a scholar and professor. The tapestry is 23” wide and looms 4’ high. I’ve calculated that my grandfather put over 248,000 stitches into that tiger. This was no paint-by-the-numbers piece either. Grandad had an artist friend paint the tiger onto a piece of canvas from a favorite photograph; then he personally picked out dozens of shades of threads to match the colors. Often he meticulously spliced threads together to achieve a precise hue. My uncle tells me that Grandad worked for years finishing the project. He’d come home from a day’s work as a surgeon and sit hunched over his magnifying glass putting in one stitch at a time, day after day. It began with a burst of enthusiasm, no doubt, but it was only completed by diligent, precise, labor. He got sick and tired of the stitching, my uncle tells me. But he pressed on with it because he loved the beauty and power of the beast and knew that the finished product would be a thing of beauty. Indeed it is. 

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3 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Dec 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

Your points about the differences between teaching online and in-the-classroom are insightful and accurate. Most students enrolled in online courses tend to see the course as a hoop they have to jump through in order to graduate, while, paradoxically, they want more individual attention via. email. I have taught online courses and abandoned the use of the discussion board after one semester: I don't find them very useful. However, I do limit the number of requests and set parameters when students can email me (whether for an online class or in-the-classroom); otherwise, you spend all your time answering email and never teaching. Usually I make it clear that I will answer email only during my office hours or, for an online course, set a couple hours a week designated just to respond to emails from students. I also limit the number of emails online students can send to me (usually 1 or 2 a week) in order to avoid taking too much of my time going over material which they probably should have read. Time management is critical when teaching online; and if you aren't able to handle it well, you could find yourself spending all your time devoted to one online course.

Adult Learner/Professional on Jan 1, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Your comments have a lot of merit, but I think the pros outweigh the cons. At the college level in fields like science and math, except for labs naturally, everything should be online. You really can't teach this stuff. You have to do it. As a teacher the role here would be to provide the proper homework that ensures the effort spent learning the material is not going to waste. That is, you may think you've learned something (solipsism danger) but you need a guide to guarantee that you are on the right path. Secondarily, when you are stumped and need help, you have a teacher to give you some hints, go into your mind, and help you correct yourself. But this really should be uncommon for most college level students. Look at your own teaching experience, isn't it only the students who are not prepared for college that you divert the most time to helping?

If you think about all the time transiting to college, waiting for your class (it may be over an hr or more before your next one), and dealing with the organizational inefficiencies of the institution wouldn't it make sense to invest that time back into the class if you had the opportunity? Online classes are that opportunity. Perhaps for kids who are there doing the traditional 4yr, going away to college thing, something might be amiss but the vast majority of students today work, have families, and graduate beyond the 4yr point because of life and an inefficient educational establishment. Many others are like myself, a working professional who goes to school at night to earn an advanced degree. How can I do that when I work 60hrs a week and the school rarely has the necessary courses at night? If they do have them, why waste time in rush hour traffic and show up to class exhausted, too tired to learn?

When it comes to the social sciences unless it is a more advanced class with the "guru" of that department, how can a politicized classroom environment be any better than online? In fact, if you are the traditional Christian straight white male, your identification as such in many of these classes only hurts your grade as these departments are filled with people with ideological agendas. I rather them not see me and just judge me on my work. Online learning anonymizes the grading as best as can be done.

But overall, the age of the classroom is over. Nobody learns buy sitting down in a lecture environment anymore. It is too slow for the bright kids of the IT age and the not so bright ones no longer have the attention span to take it in. If you think about it, the limitations are because of the spoon fed nature of Blackboard. It makes it easy for a teacher to set up a pretty run of the mill online class. If you spend more time with it and look at the cool features like having students setup a portfolio where they can log their thoughts and progress in a web page style, modern environment, you may come over the the "dark" side.

Good luck with your new position!

Lee Trepanier on Jan 3, 2012 at 7:09 am

In regards to the well-thought and insightful comments above, I would qualify some of the statements from my own experience, which are by no means universal.

The students whom I found take up most of my time during office hours are actually the better ones. The students who are not prepared rarely visit me during office hours, or only do so when it is too late for them. In terms of the classroom, I found again the better students more engaging in discussion and the worse students sitting silently in the corner of the classroom. There are exceptions to this, as every semester is different from the previous one, but generally speaking I have found better students take more of my time both in the classroom and during office hours than the worse ones.

I agree that online courses offers more flexibility and greater opportunity to some students, especially those who are non-traditional or work substantially during the school year (the latter is a typical problem for the students I teach). I actually support online courses for this reason. Having said that, I do think classroom courses do offer some unique benefits that aren't available in online courses, depending upon how the instructor structures the course. I would agree with the above comment that if the instructor merely lectures, then the classroom experience doesn't vary that much from the online course (although one could make an argument that learning to take notes from a lecture is a useful skill but perhaps not at the cost of flexibility and opportunity for students). However, if the instructor structures the course as classroom discussion where as a group they can examine certain subjects in depth, then the classroom experience is superior to the online one.

Finally, I am sympathetic to the problem of political bias in the classroom, especially among instructors. I believe that political indoctrination should not take place in the classroom or online. One of the interesting problems is that students sometimes mistake an instructor's politics, particularly when instructors use the "devil's advocate" method in the classroom (I'm been accused being both a liberal and a conservative by students in the same course). But generally speaking I agree that the liberal bias in the academia is a substantial problem that is not recognized - not surprising as most academics who are liberal assume that their ideological position is the only correct one.

However, I'm not sure whether taking a course online comapred to the classroom resolves this problem. It would be interesting to do a study on this to see if there is any difference. Is anyone looking for a dissertation topic?

Last updated on Jan 3, 2012 at 7:11 am.