Things I Learned about Teaching by Spending Time outside of the Classroom

Carrie Booth Walling, Department of Political Science and Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program

Part 1

August 29, 2017

As I approached my sabbatical semester I dreamt of long days of productive research, hours of uninterrupted and concentrated writing, and submissions to peer reviewed journals. I did not dream of revamping my course design or revising my teaching methods, nor did I expect to reevaluate my teaching so far away from the classroom. But three powerful experiences transformed the way I think about teaching and learning. I started a grassroots gathering of Flint-area women promoting civic action, I participated in the Holocaust Studies Service Learning project uncovering graves in an overgrown Polish cemetery with Albion students, and I was schooled by incarcerated trainers — including some juvenile lifers — on how teaching and learning takes place in American prisons. While each experience offered its own unique lessons, three overlapping ideas emerged that will shape my future teaching: prioritizing the process of student learning, employing learner-centered teaching methods, and the transformative power of experiential learning. This Teaching Reflection — the first in a three-part series — addresses the first of these ideas.

Most faculty, including myself, over-emphasize course content and pay too little attention to course structure and the processes by which students engage and internalize that content. For example, I devote significant time to finding “the right assigned readings,” identifying the “most appropriate concepts,” and constantly refreshing my case studies. I regularly lament the lack of time in the semester to cover all the relevant material and often over-pack my class sessions with important content that I struggle to effectively address. But I’ve started to wonder: Is the content of what students learn, more important than how students learn it? Shouldn’t I spend at least as much time thinking about how students will engage and process ideas and core concepts as I do on the ideas themselves?

Focusing on class structure is a centerpiece of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program’s pedagogy. When you teach a course in a prison you run into all kinds of barriers including a basic lack of resources (students can’t afford books, don’t have access to the internet and lack desks, computers, and basic writing materials), limited contact time with “inside” / incarcerated students, and widely varied levels of preparation and education. In this environment, HOW you teach is much more important than WHAT you teach. The goal is teaching how to learn and maximizing the impact of limited classroom interactions. Dialogue, small group work, and hands-on activities become the center of the learning process. As one juvenile lifer told me, “You need to have faith in the process. We already know how to do a lot with a little. It’s not the books that matter — it’s the ideas and how we engage them that are truly transformative.” I learned this same lesson working with civically minded women in Flint. They hungered to make a difference in their community and to reshape the political environment — it mattered less to them what issues we tackled, than that we tackled them through a process that inspired action, deepened learning, and fostered community.

This semester I’ll devote more class preparation time to thinking through how my students will “play with” the material on the syllabus and less time trying to cover absolutely everything I think it is important for them to know. My goal is to offer a more impactful learning experience through which they will gain the skills necessary to tackle the vast richness of the literature in my field on their own.

Part 2

September 12, 2017

In my last Teaching Reflection, I argued that focusing on the process of how students learn deserves as much attention as the focus on course content. In this one, I make a second observation: learner-centered teaching really means finding ways to share the stage with students.

On my course syllabus, I describe the method of instruction for the class. I emphasize that student attendance and participation are crucial. All members of the class have unique experiences and meaningful ideas that contribute to the learning process. For a long time, I have given “lip service” to the idea that we are all teachers and learners in the college classroom. Now, I realize that putting that into action might mean stepping back and taking on the role of a facilitator or coach giving direction from the sideline rather than standing as the instructor at the front of the room. This means abandoning the hierarchy of the classroom, loosening my control over the learning process, and truly sharing the space with my students. This means creating opportunities for students to select course topics, lead class discussions, and intervene in the learning process more generally.

Occasionally, it might require sacrificing efficiency to allow students to discover the answers for themselves through a slow and wrenching Socratic dialogue in which they weigh all possible alternatives in collaboration with their peers. If we wait long enough and refuse to fill the awkward silences, students will often come up with the answers in their own words. This has a more lasting impact than hearing us say those same things in our own. It also offers students ownership over their own discoveries rather than rewarding them for internalizing ours.

What might this look like in practice?

It might mean a hands-on activity that takes most of the class period but through which students come to internalize an important concept at a deep level. For example, I can tell my students what the immigrant experience is like in the United States, or I can create the conditions in the classroom through a role-play or in-class exercise that allows them to explore it from the immigrant’s perspective.

It might also mean following a student digression if it offers a productive learning opportunity and empowers students in the classroom. If the assigned readings for the day address the pros and cons of nuclear proliferation, it makes sense to let students express their ideas and feelings about the North Korean missile launch the night before. Sometimes it might even make sense to ditch the syllabus to talk about a consequential event for students—like the neo-Nazi and white supremacist march in Charlottesville—that can be creatively brought back to course content.

This semester, then, I’m going to plan a script but try to “do improv” when it feels right.

Part 3

September 26, 2017

This Teaching Reflection is the third in a three-part series that reflects on my lessons learned when I started a grassroots gathering of Flint-area women promoting civic action, participated in the Holocaust Studies Service Learning project uncovering graves in an overgrown Polish cemetery with Albion students, and was schooled by incarcerated trainers — including some juvenile lifers — on how teaching and learning takes place in American prisons. The third lesson focused me on the transformative power of experiential learning.

Offering “hands-on” learning opportunities — in the class and outside of it — can help students feel and experience new ideas and not just think about them. I can spend an entire semester exposing students to debates on transitional justice — the actions that people take to be able to live together again after horrible human rights abuses — but they understand the dilemmas in a more meaningful way after spending just a single day in a forgotten cemetery in Poland. I can talk about deep social divisions that divide our society but when my students have to be “patted down” to enter their classroom on the other side of the prison wall, they start to “get it” in a new way. I’m not saying that I think that every course or class session requires such an obvious experiential component, but I do think it’s important to think periodically about ways to focus attention on class structure and the processes students will use to engage the material and not just what material they should engage. This means devoting thought to how to expose students to experiences that will engage their hearts, souls and bodies around the ideas that I seek to teach them, and not just their minds.

What I learned in each of these non-traditional teaching venues is that education is not just about reaching minds. Teaching also can touch the heart and engage the soul. Human beings are complex and learning can be a full body experience because ideas, beliefs, and feelings are often interconnected. I saw the transformative power of education when learning was approached as a communal enterprise. But building a shared learning community means taking the time (and not a small amount of courage) to build a “safe enough” learning environment where participants actually see and engage each other, in productive, if also challenging ways. This semester I strive to create such a community — if only for an hour or a few fleeting sessions — in each of my classes. I will also strive to rotate between teacher-led and student-led learning activities. I know that I won’t always succeed but I will do what we ask each of our students to do every time we give an assignment — I will practice.