Oblique strategies for teaching

oblique_20120526_by Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Some teachers may find themselves feeling like they are in a bit of a rut in their teaching.  It’s an all too common feeling in which something feels out of step.  Perhaps, we feel bored or feel that our efforts don’t produce the same results as before. We may also find ourselves falling into familiar teaching habits, or even feeling overwhelmed by not knowing what to change. It is a similar feeling found in other creative professions; however, the “rut” can go by different names.   Some artists call it having  writers block or simply hitting a creative wall.

In 1975, composer and producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards called the “Oblique Strategies” – a series of cards designed to tackle creative log jams.  Each card includes an aphorism intended to help artists break free of a creative dilemma in order to promote “lateral thinking – a form of metacognition designed to address problem solving by using reasoning that is not immediately obvious” (De Bono, 2010).

Although some of the phrases on the cards are specific to music creation, some are open-ended enough to be thought-provoking for any situation.  Some of their questions include (Taylor, 1995):

  • What to increase? What to reduce?

  • Work at a different speed.

  • Use an old idea.

  • Use your own ideas.

  • Don’t avoid what is easy.

  • What is it for? Who is it for?

  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.

I often think of the Oblique Strategies when I find myself in a teaching rut.  Using a set of aphorisms tailored specifically for academics could help us break free from our own ruts.

Consider the following questions:

  • When am I at my most productive?

  • What part of the course am I taking for granted?

  • Who am I teaching?  What do they already know?

  • What do I find most interesting?  How do I let my students know?

  • If I were a student in my class, what would I change?

  • WWXD:  What would (colleague X) do?

  • What is essential for my students to learn?

  • Have I planned enough time?

  • How will I know students have accomplished the objectives for the course?

  • What if I showed students the blueprints?

  • What would I do differently if I were teaching a colleague?

No matter what questions you may ask, the practice of reflecting on teaching in strategic ways can help lead to a new place outside of your rut.

De Bono, E., & Zimbalist, E. (2010). Lateral thinking. Viking.

Jones, S. (2014). Ambient Genius. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/07/ambient-genius

Taylor, G. (1995). History of the Oblique Strategies. Music.hyperreal.org. Retrieved 24 February 2015, from http://music.hyperreal.org/

Photo courtesy of http://www.gorditosybonitos.com/desbloqueos-a-la-hora-de-pensar-oblique-strategies/


Data Literacy Tools for the Classroom

by Rebecca Hyde, Research & Instruction Librarian, Associate Professor, Pius XII Memorial Library

“Data literacy” is used to mean many different things, but I recently came across a simple definition that really resonated with me: Data literacy is “the ability to interpret, evaluate, and communicate statistical information” (Beauchamp 2015). I like this broad definition because it encompasses the basic skills that are important for everyone, while also touching on the more advanced analytical skills we expect students and researchers dealing with data to master.

This concept is nothing new, and is sometimes called “statistical literacy” or “quantitative literacy,” but the basics of it can be easily overlooked as assumed knowledge in the classroom. With data becoming an ever more present part of our lives, this skill is crucial for our students to become educated consumers and users of data, even if they will not end up as researchers whose grasp of data creation and usage is essential to their scholarship.

Many of you probably already know of ICPSR (Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research) as a place to go for research data and maybe even as a place to archive your own data. ICPSR also has started to create resources for instructors interested in incorporating data literacy into their classrooms. There are multiple levels of resources, including some for students with little or no experience working with data, as well as for more advanced students who have experience with statistical analysis. All of these resources are freely available to anyone at an ICPSR member institution, including Saint Louis University.

The most basic level classroom exercises are the Data-Driven Learning Guides which provide an easy way to introduce working with data to your students. Most of the legwork is done for you, including links to data analysis for specific variables, interpretive questions for students to answer, and a bibliography of related articles. These guides are especially useful when you want to engage students in a deeper conversation on a relevant topic, while also giving them some exposure to using and thinking about data in an academic setting.

While these guides were created with the social sciences in mind, the topics are broad enough that they may be useful in a variety of classrooms. For example, the guide on “Attitudes about Racial Discrimination and Racial Inequality in the US” might be relevant in many classrooms and can inform a discussion about what conclusions students can and can’t draw from the data presented and how the data might relate to discussions on race in St. Louis and the U.S. at large.

For classes with more advanced students, there is the Crosstab Assignment Builder, which allows instructors to choose specific variables from a dataset for students to work with using an online application. This removes the need for students to learn statistical software in order to access and analyze the data and can simplify datasets by limiting the variables available to students. There also are more advanced exercise sets created with research methods courses or other advanced courses in mind.

If this post has gotten you excited about using data or statistics in your course, take a look at ICPSR’s list of resources for teaching undergraduates and their collection of videos related to data literacy and teaching. If you want other options for more simplified statistical data (or databases to point your students to), check out DataPlanet Statistical Datasets or the ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the United States. Please get in touch with me if you’re looking for suggestions or would like help navigating any of these resources!


Works Cited

Beauchamp, A. (February 12, 2015) What is Data Literacy? Databrarians. http://databrarians.org/tag/teaching-data-in-higher-education/

Rhyde001cRebecca Hyde is a faculty research & instruction librarian at Pius XII Memorial Library. She is the subject librarian for Government Information, Political Science, the Center for Sustainability, and the School for Professional Studies.



Tools of the Reflective Trade

This is my current Field Notes memo book and my trusty space pen!

This is my current Field Notes memo book and my trusty space pen!

by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Even though reflection can be a valuable tool for teaching and learning, it’s only valuable if you actually do it. I’m a “process” minded person by training and by nature, so I’m usually searching for tools to add practical application to important theories. I wanted to take some time and explain some of my tools for reflection in hopes that they might inspire and encourage you in your own reflective practices.

In developing a reflection process that works for me, I decided to use different tools that each serve a specific purpose with little overlap into the other tools. There are tools for catching ideas and fleeting thoughts, and tools for deeper reflective writing. That’s what is effective for my thought process, but perhaps not yours. Find tools that naturally integrate into how you think and how you work. Many of the tools I use are cross-platform so I can access them in the moment using my iPhone or later when I sit down to write and think on my laptop.

Idea Catchers: These are tools that I use in the moment of inspiration. I can quickly and easily capture a thought for later reflection.

Recordium: This is an audio recording application; the free version has suited my needs so far. Immediately after class as I am walking to my car, I pull out this app on my phone. I record the memorable moments from class, both positive and negative, so I don’t have to rely on my cloudy brain to remember the details of that lesson when I go to review it for the next semester. And by speaking those moments out loud, it helps me process how that evening’s class unfolded. It’s quick, responsive, and easy to use as you really just hit the big “record” button to get going.

Vesper: This is an iOS app for quick notes. It’s clean, clear, and everything is taggable for future reference. While I use this app for catching ideas on the personal, as opposed to the professional, side of things, it has become a great tool for capturing and curating inspirations.

Field Notes and Fisher Space Pen: I love gadgets and apps more than most people, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a fond affection for pen and paper. Field Notes are durable, beautiful, and seem to be just the right size to be portable and provide enough writing space. And if you’re going to carry around a pen, it might as well be a space pen. The Fisher Space Pen can famously write upside down, in sub-freezing temperatures, and even under water, because sometimes getting back to the parking lot can be its own adventure. This is a tool that I use for both professional and personal reflection. If you flipped through its pages you are just as likely to see a memorable quote from a conference speaker as you would a dimensional drawing of my living room windows.

Writing and Reflection: These are the tools I use to take those moments of inspiration and process them to see how I can develop in my teaching and learning.

Evernote: Evernote can be a little intimidating to jump into because it offers quite a bit of functionality and depth. Essentially, it’s an online notebook (or collection of notebooks) that can store just about any digital content you can find or create. I have a “note” on each of my classes. I am continually collecting ideas on potential assignments, readings, and objectives to rework, update, and improve my class. I also create a section in that note called, “Things I Need to Fix Before Next Semester,” and keep track of those components of my course that are in need of immediate revision. Most of the time, those revisions come from projects that just didn’t work as well as I had hoped. As the beginning of the semester appears on the horizon, I will create a checklist of what I need to do before the first day of class, like organize and prepare Blackboard. The trick with Evernote is that the more you use it, the more useful it becomes.

Day One: I had the thought a while back, “I’m reflecting on my work, and I have experienced value in that. Why am I not reflecting on my life?” Day One has been great because I can use it on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac seamlessly while having it backed up to Dropbox. I love that I can add a photo to each entry as well, which is significantly more challenging with a handwritten journal. Because I have such easy access to it, it has become an almost daily tool for me to spend time reflecting on the intersection of my work, my family, and my life in ways that push me to become a better human being.

The tools above are examples of how I have integrated a reflective process into my professional and personal life. Perhaps at least one of the pieces can serve you in your own reflections on life and work, or even inspire you to get intentional about reflection in your teaching. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, tools are only valuable if you actually use them, so the most important thing is to find tools that serve your own purposes and processes.

The Purpose of College: Career-making or Soul-making?

Textbook imageby Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Dan Berrett’s recent Chronicle article traces “the day the purpose of college changed” to the day that Ronald Reagan suggested that, in a time of economic downturn, “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.”  From this day in 1967, Barrett traces a change in the perception of college students about the purpose of college.  The article displays a chart that shows the percentage of students who viewed “being very well off financially” vs. “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as “essential” or “very important” to their purpose in college from 1971-2013.  The figures:  in the 70’s well over 60% of students viewed developing a philosophy as essential to their purpose in college, and below 40% viewed financial security as essential.  By 2013, those figures literally flip:  Just above 40% view a meaningful philosophy as essential, while over 80% regard their essential college purpose as being well-off financially.

I’ve personally sensed this attitude over the years in teaching rhetoric and composition courses.  I sometimes feel resentment thick in the air, as students appear to feel forced to be in a class not connected to their career paths.  Of course, as I hope to convince them, writing and communication are integral to most any career path.  I view it as part of my job to demonstrate to them how the skills we develop may be applied and malleable in countless contexts.

In pedagogical lingo, I want them to see how the skills of rhetoric and composition transfer to other aspects of their lives.  Transfer refers to the capacity of a skill or knowledge to “travel to a new context” (Perkins and Salomon 22).  This “travel,” though, does not always happen naturally.  Rather, transfer most likely occurs when teachers create learning situations in which students complete learning tasks using the skills that we hope they will apply in the new context.

For example, if we want the lessons of a history class to transfer to help students “to make thoughtful interpretations of current events,” but we have only taught them “to remember and retrieve knowledge on cue,” we are not setting them up to make this jump (28).  To teach for transfer, Perkins and Salomon advise, teach students through the skills you want them to acquire.  Also, be transparent about your goals: “Deliberately provoke students to think about how they approach tasks in and outside of history, programming or math […and] confront students with analogous problems outside its boundary” (30).  By incorporating the “process of abstraction and connection making” into the everyday business of class, we can enable students to put their knowledge and skills to work when they go to work outside of college.

However, this way of thinking about transfer runs the risk of reinforcing the view that college is career training, as Jonathan Greene argues.  Still, can’t we prepare students for their careers, emphasizing how their skills and knowledge transfer, while at the same time opening up the aims of the classroom to the higher ends that bring many us to this profession in the first place?

Bobby Fong proposes that the purpose of college education, far above the quotidian purpose of economic security, is “soul-making,” “developing the internal landscape of students’ lives.”   He defines the ‘soul’ broadly, as “the individual identity a person forges in the course of living” (28).  Fong grounds his call for “soul-making” in Martha Nussbaum’s defense of liberal education in Cultivating Humanity.  Nussbaum (via Fong) articulates the aims of college as, first, developing students’ “capacity to critically examine themselves and the society that has formed them” (30).  Second, “exposing students to the unfamiliar […] to encourage [them] to appreciate the occasions when they are uncomfortable with the strangeness of the world” (32).  This encounter with “strangeness” leads into a third goal, the development of “empathy, the capacity to place themselves in the situation of others” (32).

If we desire higher education to work toward these ends, perhaps we need to make these goals transparent for our students.  Just as college skills require the intentional habits of abstraction and connection-making to transfer to career skills, so the cultivation of an “internal landscape” requires intentional incorporation into the ways we approach teaching our subject matter.

One semester, while teaching composition through having students research a social justice issue, I was open with them about my goals, and I asked them to think about their own.  I told them we had the option to spend all this time together—writing, talking, thinking—to just get through the course, acquire basic college skills, and move on.  Or, we could make the time matter.  We have the choice to spend the time writing, talking, and thinking about something that deeply concerns us.  I asked them, “Think about what concerns you.  You can use this time to ask difficult questions, to research to find answers, to find out what you can do in life.”  To my surprise, the students caught the vision.  We spent the semester inquiring together into questions they really cared about.  The tenor of the work, of the classroom, of their conversations with each other vibrated with their philosophical and emotional investment.

But should I have been surprised?  I wonder if, in a culture where marketability is king, they just need the nudge of someone else admitting they care about “the internal landscape of their lives.”  By stating the goal of cultivating that “internal landscape” and shaping our teaching methods to address habits of mind that make connections with broader experience, perhaps we can help that knowledge and skill base to transfer, not just to a career, but to a life well-lived.


Works Cited

Barrett, Dan.  “The Day the Purpose of College Changed.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  26 January 2015.  http://chronicle.com/article/The-Day-the-Purpose-of-College/151359/ Web. 27 Jan.      2015.

Fong, Bobby.  “Cultivating ‘Sparks of the Divinity.’” Liberal Education 100.3 (2014): 28-35. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Green, J.H.  ”Transfer of Learning and Its Ascendancy in Higher Education: A Cultural Critique.” Teaching in Higher Education 18.4 (2013): 365-376. Social Sciences Citation Index. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Nussbaum, Martha.  Cultivating Humanity:  A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1997.

Perkins, D.N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching For Transfer.” Educational Leadership 46.1 (1988): 22-32. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Taking Another Look at the Project-Based Class

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

In a recent article, “The Road to a Project-Based Classroom,” Gintaras Duda explains how he has moved from lecture to projects in his quantum mechanics course. The course he describes is one that has gone through three iterations as it has evolved into the wholly project-based class that it is now.  As a non-physicist, what I find most useful about Duda’s course is that the way he has structured it could be adopted for courses in a variety of disciplines.

There are three basic parts to Duda’s structure, based on his philosophy that the instructor is “responsible for scaffolding and the prompts for learning, but the students are responsible for their own learning and managing the use of precious in-class time” (43). These parts are as follows: providing a weekly framework set by the instructor; giving the projects a central focus in the course; and replacing lectures with brief, in-class discussions focused on the needs of small groups as well as the whole class.

Duda’s design is intricate and deeply-conceived.  For instance, the weekly framework he provides for students includes several components including homework problems, lecture tutorials, a reading assignment and reading notes, a written lecture, and examples and papers from the disciplinary literature.  Additionally, “each packet lays out the learning objectives that [Duda] expect[s] students to master that week and reflect upon when they finish it” (43). Each of these components is carefully created and selected to move students through foundational knowledge to engaging that knowledge by actively working through questions, problems, and projects with a team of classmates. From a teaching perspective, he has shifted the work of giving lectures during class to the work of designing the learning experiences of course.

The course structure that Duda describes in this article is ultimately a great example of the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm at work.  Beginning with context (foundational knowledge), he then helps students move through experience with the sample problems, reflection in the embedded tutorial questions, action through the projects themselves, and finally evaluation through the post-tutorial assessments he describes. He leaves plenty of time for students to use in-class time for whichever purposes they see as most important at that time–working together, asking questions, setting deadlines, etc.

In teaching this particular course through the project-based method, Duda reports one of the results that he finds most rewarding is that “project-based learning gives all students a chance to shine and develop” while “students take ownership of their own education” (44). Certainly, these are learning results that we all strive to achieve regardless of our discipline or level of students.

Duda, Gintaras. “The Road to a Project-Based Classroom.” Change Magazine of Higher Learning. November/December 2014.

Reinert Center’s Winter Institute Explores “Teaching Today’s Learners in Multiple Formats

DSC_0022Over 75 Saint Louis University faculty members and graduate students braved the cold on January 8, 2015 to take part in the Reinert Center’s annual Winter Institute, which focused this year on “Teaching Today’s Students in Multiple Formats.”

Rita-Marie Conrad, of The UC-Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning, was this year’s keynote speaker. Conrad has published extensively on teaching and learning in the digital environment, and is the author of Continuing to Engage the Online Learner, which is used by many Saint Louis University faculty working with the Reinert Center to develop online pedagogies.

In the morning keynote, Conrad explored the idea that as learner behavior is increasingly shaped by a digital world, what happens in online courses has influenced what happens in traditional face-to-face courses. “The lines are blurring between what is online and what is just teaching.”  You can listen to the full keynote by clicking here.

The Institute also featured four breakout sessions, lead by SLU faculty. They were Teaching Accelerated Courses with Heather Bednarek, Craig Boyd, and Steven Howard; Teaching Flipped Courses with Elena Bray Speth and Mike Lewis; Teaching Online and Blended Courses with Tony Breitbach and Karen Myers; and Teaching Co-Taught Courses with Dan Haybron, Sherry Muir, and Charlotte Royeen.

Traditionally held the Thursday before spring classes begin, The Winter Institute is a signature event associated with the annual theme of the Reinert Center. This year’s theme is “Teaching Today’s Students.”  To find out about additional programming that focuses on this year’s theme, visit the Reinert Center’s website (http://www.slu.edu/cttl).


Learner-Centered Pedagogy: The Fear of Losing Control

writingby Kenneth L. Parker, Steber Professor in Theological Studies

In the spring of 1991, I returned to teaching after more than five years as a Benedictine monk. The monastery had been founded in China in the 1920s, and when exiled after the Chinese Revolution, the community had relocated to the Mojave Desert in California. During my novitiate, I had taken up a private study of modern Chinese history, even though my research and academic formation at Cambridge University had been in early modern English puritan studies. When my community sent me to study theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, I also studied the history of missiology and continued to read about the modern emergence of Christianity in China. So when the history department of a small liberal arts college in Santa Barbara asked me to teach a non-Western course after I left monastic life, I suggested Modern Chinese History.

I recall my fear, walking into class that first day. Twenty-five eager students greeted me expectantly. My plan for the first two weeks filled me with uncertainty. I explained that they needed to divide up into teams of two or three, do research on a Chinese province, and come into class with handouts and a report on what they had learned. These were bright students and eager to learn. They enthused about the prospect of the project and returned the next several sessions with excellent presentations and dynamic discussion about the interconnectedness of a region of the world that had previously been a mystery to them. Their engagement in the work reassured me, as we moved on to the next stage of the course: my lectures.

This proved a challenging task, as I spent my days outside of the classroom writing detailed notes that constructed a narrative of China’s nineteenth-century encounter with Western powers, and the Chinese Empire’s struggles to resist their aggression. I then moved on to the twentieth century miseries of war, revolution, radical social changes, and the trauma of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Without formal training, Chinese words, important Chinese figures and places proved challenging to pronounce, and so I filled the chalkboard with them as I lectured, and stuck close to my notes. Students were reduced to silence—except for the sound of pens on paper and periodic sighs or requests for me to repeat a line I had said. Students walked out of my classroom with fingers cramped, but notebooks filled with information. I recall the sense of satisfaction I had. I was doing my job.

But near the end of the semester, two of the brightest students in the course asked to see me. When we met, they asked a very simple question: “What happened to the course we loved at the beginning of the semester?” I asked them to explain. They recalled wistfully the excitement of doing research and reporting what they had found, listening to their peers reports and the dynamic exchanges between students about provinces they had studied. They confessed that the lectures had been difficult to follow, and even harder to record in note form. Half the time they had difficulty making connections or understanding the narrative that I had condensed from the sources I had used. By the end of the conversation, they communicated a message I have never forgotten: we want to learn, and not be taught.

Looking back on that experience, I realize that it reflects a pitfall many professors fall into: mistaking “teaching” with “learning.” In my insecurity and desire to control the contact time, I dominated the classroom and filled it with the fruits of my own learning, rather that creating an experience that would enable my students to learn effectively. Those two brave students (grades had not been assigned!) helped me realize that my job is to facilitate learning. That means creating learner-centered experiences, and not classrooms dominated by the instructor’s (my) fear of losing control.

This approach demands much more of the students, and requires much more preparation from the professor before the semester begins. Careful planning is needed to build effective progression of learning, so that students of varying abilities and learning styles can deepen in their understanding in different ways and at different paces. However, over the years I have come to appreciate that students learn best when they are challenged to take charge of their educational formation. Instructors must let go of their own fears and insecurities, and create spaces where learning is possible.

Teaching Today’s Students: The Conversations Continue

teachingtodaysstudents2014by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

This spring, we’re continuing to focus on our theme for the year, Teaching Today’s Students.  The theme provides an opportunity to highlight the most important element of context – our students – and to explore the many aspects of who “today’s students” are and what is needed to “teach” and engage them in meaningful ways.

As we look ahead to the new semester, we wanted to call your attention to the specific programs and resources that will highlight different aspects of context and some practical strategies for addressing the variations we experience.

This Thursday, we’ll host about 100 SLU faculty and graduate students at our annual Winter Institute, which will focus on Teaching Today’s Students in Multiple Formats.  We’re thrilled to have renowned teacher and scholar Dr. Rita Marie Conrad joining us, as well as 12 SLU faculty members who will share expertise and experience with teaching in formats such as accelerated, “flipped,” online / blended, and co-taught courses.

In February, we’ll also resume our brown bag series on Teaching International Students.  We’ll focus on two important topics for working effectively with our international students – faculty / student relationships and grading written work.  Each is hosted twice, once on the Frost campus and once on the Health Sciences campus.  Click here to reserve a seat.

Finally, we’ll host a series of other workshops, as part of our Teaching with Technology Forum series and as part of our Certificate Program, on topics such as Generational Learning Styles, Using Social Media in the Classroom, Small Group Discussion Strategies, Using Technology to Create, Evaluate, and Manage Collaborative Learning, and more. To see a full list, click here.  For those who can’t attend related programs, you may find our blog series on the theme useful, as well.

Broader Identity as Change Agents

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Like many of you, I spent some of my time this semester preparing a workshop for a conference. This was the primary professional conference for faculty developers from all over North America. It’s one of those conferences where you are surrounded by hundreds of colleagues and yet you never have to explain “what you actually do” because we all do similar work. I’ve been in this line of work for around four years, and I still have to explain what I do to my family. While I was at this conference, I got to experience something that I read about in my time preparing. I was incorporating some work on collective identity into my workshop when this phrase I read became burned into my brain: “If college teachers define themselves only as content or skill experts within some narrowly restricted domain, they effectively cut themselves off from some broader identity as change agents.” The idea of having a broader identity as change agents stuck with me, and that’s what I got to experience at this conference.

As I was reflecting on my conference experience a week or so after, I had the realization that the main difference between the first year at a conference and the second year at the same conference is that you begin to recognize names and faces. People also begin to recognize you. That may not sound like much, but it’s the core of that shared identity as change agents. There’s a certain empowerment that comes from learning that others are thinking and caring about the same things you think and care about. It’s also pretty encouraging when someone from across the country recognizes you from the previous year and goes out of their way to say hello. Being connected to a community that has some shared values is strangely motivating. I realized that it’s not just me, alone in my office, wrestling with how to help faculty and students have more meaningful learning experiences. It’s not just the Reinert Center staff working together to support the community here at SLU. But that I’m part of an international group of people who are collaborating and working together to highlight all things teaching and learning far beyond the walls of our individual universities. And realizing that I am part of a larger community of change agents has refreshed my desire to serve my community in more and deeper ways. So, it was a pretty good conference, to say the least.

This is the part where I usually try to offer some practical advice to make what I write about action-oriented. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a bit with this one. I didn’t take many “practical” steps to get to my community revelation. I didn’t plan my route, or really even go searching for a professional community. But what I did have was a supportive department that modeled shared values and that encouraged me to attend different conferences in hopes of finding a community I felt like I could join. So I think that’s the most practical advice I can offer. Model and share your values with those around you, whether they be research on string theory physics, helping students navigate their field and practicum experiences, or the scholarship of teaching and learning. As you look to find your community of change agents, be sure to bring others along with you as they search for theirs.

Seeking “the Gray”: Further Thoughts on Teaching in a Time of Crisis

grey prismby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

In a blog post earlier this semester, I offered some thoughts on the important distinction between reaction and response when teaching in times of crisis.  Since then, the need for response (versus reaction) has only grown stronger.  We’ve had continuing protests (on campus, in the St. Louis region, and across the nation), and we’ve seen more evidence that informed dialogue and deep reflection are needed at all levels of our society if social injustice is to be ameliorated.

While there are many ways we in higher ed might and do serve the causes of social justice, I have heard a number of faculty ask, “But what can I do? In my classes and my work with students?”  The questions are more acute from those who teach courses that do not, in their content, seem directly related to the issues at hand.  But I believe we’re all striving to teach habits of mind, in addition to content.  And all of us have an opportunity (and a responsibility) to foster particular habits of mind that can prepare our students to work toward justice.  One “habit of mind” stands out as especially useful – and, indeed, essential – in the current crisis is the active seeking of “the gray.”

So many of the voices we hear in conversations around race and class and privilege seem to want the issues to be black and/or white.  But many of us believe that the only way to real progress is a consideration of the “gray” – those murky, messy spaces where either/or propositions or easy cause/effect arguments fail to account for the multiple truths inherent in any complex situation.

While it can be difficult to help students cultivate this habit of mind, we have an imperative to do so.  We can get there by teaching students three important early habits:

1 | Suspending judgment: All courses can teach this lesson, whether the “judgment” being suspended is about weighty social issues or just about the specific content of a course.  Here’s one way to do that…

How: At the beginning of the semester, ask students to write down their assumptions, fears, expectations about the course and its content, or about specific topics that will be covered in the course.  Students might consider their own preconceived notions about how difficult or interesting the course will be, things they’ve heard other students say about it, expectations they have about whether they will be strong in particular areas, etc. Then, ask students explicitly to try to set aside those views and to commit to full engagement in the course.  At the end of the semester, ask students to revisit those earlier assumptions and to reflect on the ways in which those early judgments were or were not well-founded; discuss these things in a last class period or in an online discussion.  This kind of activity will model for students the importance of suspending judgment; it also will signal your willingness to hear their critique and views, but after those views are informed by evidence from their own experience.

2 | Seeking multiple perspectives: It’s one thing to talk about “diversity” and another to be committed to the work of actively seeking multiple perspectives.  Most courses have an opportunity to cultivate students’ appreciation for diverse perspectives, whether those perspectives are about cultural topics or just different methods for solving the same problem.

How: Present the class with a complex problem to be discussed / solved in groups.  Before students begin working, ask them to talk in their groups about who among them has specific expertise or skill that may help with tackling the problem.  Ask them to identify their majors or their specific areas of research or study (or other areas of expertise, such as particular job skills or hobbies or service experience), so they can see the different approaches or methods for problem solving that are represented in their group.  Before they begin working, invite them to list all the possible approaches, types of evidence, or formulas that may be relevant.  While they may do many of these things intuitively, there can be value in explicitly foregrounding the need for many different ways of thinking.

3 | Listening deeply: So often, the kind of listening students do in classrooms is listening for – listening for the “right” answers or the “best” solutions or for one student to stop speaking so they can jump in or get credit.  One important skill to cultivate is that of listening with – with attention, with purpose.  Here’s one way we might begin to cultivate this skill explicitly…

How: During a lecture, ask students to put down their pens or stop typing for a set period of time.  Tell them their goal is not to take notes but to really listen, both to the content of what you’re saying and to how you’re saying it.  They should focus on the relationships or connections between ideas that you’re conveying, not on memorizing facts.  After you lecture for 10-15 minutes, stop and ask students to restate what they heard; ask them to try to articulate what was most important in the lecture, what connections they heard.  As they report out, invite them to consider how they knew these were the important lessons.  Then, give them an opportunity to jot down notes and to ask additional questions for clarification.

It’s uncomfortable to live in the gray.  We have to hold multiple perspectives in our heads at once.  We have to listen to seemingly contradictory views and look for truths in both.  We have to be willing to see our own complicity, our own limitations of experience or knowledge, our own privilege.  Ultimately, we aggressively have to seek dialogue, rather than debate.  The steps above are just a few ways we can begin to help students cultivate the habits of mind needed to transform society.  If SLU is about the pursuit of truth, and if that pursuit is messy, living in the “gray” is an essential element of the education we’re striving to provide.

Have other ideas about how teachers can empower students to seek the gray?  Please share them in the Comments section of this blog.