On teaching and learning, part 1

I say “part 1” because I assume there are going to be a bunch of these.  Yes, I’ve started teaching again — just one course, for senior-level university students, in which they study issues of sustainability and write a thesis on it.  I have always loved teaching, especially the part about getting to design awesome new courses myself, so this is very satisfying.  But this is the first time my time (and income) have been so incredibly constrained, so there have been some challenges on those fronts.  Raising babies, as they say, is really a full-time job.  But here’s what I’m learning so far:

1. Adult learners rock.  The average age at the public institution where I’m teaching is 32; the student body is 80% women; sounds like everyone has kids or jobs or both, and often several of each.  These people are not interested in wasting time or money, and they bring their whole selves to the course.  Keeps me on my toes.

2. Online teaching (the course is “blended,” so we meet face-to-face for just under half the weeks of the course) takes a lot of preparation but is no different, in essence, from other forms of thoughtful and effective pedagogies.  There are lots of cool new tools to learn and lot of time necessary to get things up and running, but it’s all premised on the same basics: start where people are; be clear about goals and processes; provide space, time, and encouragement for exploration.  Whenever possible, engage people’s whole selves — we know from research as well as from common sense that people learn about what they care about.

3. And go meta.  It’s always worthwhile to teach ABOUT what we are doing: reading and writing ABOUT research help us think more intentionally and more effectively about what our goals and methods are when we do our research.  Especially for adult learners, the largest obstacles often have nothing to do with the reading, research, or writing itself: they have to do with the mystification of the process and the apparent inaccessibility of the culture.  (Because of sentences like that one.)  But it’s not a closed club, and it’s not rocket science.  We are already scholars.

For those of you who don’t know me, it might be relevant that I’ve taught at three very different kinds of institutions before that, some of them very prestigious and all of them full of very interesting and engaged students…as well as a variety of folks who are there because of parental or cultural expectations.  Much of the energy you bring to the classroom (and course design, and responding to writing, and all the other places and activities of teaching) has to go toward motivating students and capturing their elusive (and often partial) attention.  As I’ve always said: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink…good teaching, then, is about finding ways to make the horse thirsty.  I’ve typically done that through community engagement, which works powerfully for these purposes and often has the beautiful side effects of waking students up to vital issues of (in)difference, (in)justice, and the inextricability of our various lives.  But these students, this summer, already KNOW a lot of that stuff — they’ve lived it.  And I’m thrilled for the chance to support them in their deepening scholarly work.

On the day after I taught my first class this week, I was home reading with my younger son.  He does not like reading, or has not.  This has troubled me mightily, as I adore books and so does my older son.  I’ve noticed that there are a few books Chi likes, and they all have baby-pictures in them, or songs, or overt rhythms, or moving parts.  I’ve been waiting and waiting for the time when he begins to like STORIES for their own sake, when the characters and plot-lines take on importance.  But on that morning, I learned something essential: maybe he won’t ever like stories for the same reasons I do.  Maybe he is simply motivated in different ways.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t also be a reader.  He recently fell in love with Grandma’s dog when they brought her here on a visit, and after they went home again we actually called Grandma and Grandpa to Facetime…with the dog.  Chi could not contain his excitement, and he bounced and shouted and tried to grab the phone.  Afterward, I remembered a book he had rejected before, a collection of dog “portraits” in pictures and poems that the rest of us had loved.  Well, my heavens.  Now it’s Chi’s favorite book ever.  And I was reminded, for the nine-hundred-and-eighty-first time: what we do as teachers is NOT to make people into us, or even assume that we might want to.  What we do as teachers is try to figure out what moves them and work from there.  We try to give them the tools, the know-how, and perhaps even the inclination to understand and move purposefully in the world.  Because a sense of caring, just as much as a set of competencies, is what we need to try and fix what we see is broken.

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9 comments on “On teaching and learning, part 1

  1. Sherry Sims says:

    Great posting! Shows the truth of, among other things, the Confucian saying “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”. Thank heavens they have you as a teacher!

  2. Ben says:

    Great post, Anna. It’s neat to hear that you’re so jazzed about your current gig. While not teaching this May Term, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my own teaching. There are some gems in here that I have now added to my ever-growing stockpile of thoughts on teaching and learning. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Ooo, it’s fun to get to read about this teaching job! And I am SO jealous about the average age of 32. I miss adult learners so very much.

    Regarding Chi and the reading, don’t be surprised if he never takes to books fully, partly because he’s already in the process of differentiating himself from his brother. Ezra is SUCH a linguist that Chi is probably going to desire to make his mark in a different manner. But that said, as you saw with the dog book, that doesn’t mean he won’t love books. Just in his own way.

    Great post!

  4. Katy G. says:

    I agree–a great post. Your point about Chi is very, very important: teaching does not mean turning other people into ourselves but helping them to be fully themselves.

  5. Lydia says:

    Ha, we have the same issue with Kieran and James. Though we went to the library yesterday and brought home a couple new books that K seems to really like. One is a train book with holes for the tunnels, that he can put his fingers through (and some big chomper bug seems to always be there waiting to nom nom nom on those delicious fingers, every time he pokes them through! Every time! ;)), and one is, yep, a book with babies in it, making signs.
    I especially like the part of this post about starting where people are. I think that’s relevant even in non-teaching work.

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