It took me several years and a road trip to Michigan for me to become acquainted with Kathy Brockway, a colleague at K-State. We became friends at the Wakonse conference on college teaching in 2008. I have long known she is an outstanding teacher and an inspiration to others, but the fall 2018 semester was the first time I was able to see her in action in the classroom first hand and close up. She is so dynamic!
In a somewhat last-minute decision, I was assigned to teach a new course called Mastering Academic Conversations, also known in some circles as a freshman experience course. Although I had previously taught a similar survey course in arts and humanities, this particular course was conceived and developed by others. My humanities course was not exclusively offered for first year students, but that was the purpose of this new course.
Originally I was to team teach the course with Prof. Brockway, but that quickly changed and I was assigned two of my own sections to teach in the course. Fortunately, one of the sections overlapped with hers, and the classroom she was assigned was large enough, so early in the semester we made the decision to join our sections together for certain sessions. This arrangement worked so well that for most of the semester, we taught together as a team with our two sections combined as one class.
Having a larger group of about 30 students really changed the dynamic of the class from two smaller groups. We had better discussions, and working together with a colleague energized us. Depending on the topic and the circumstances, either of us could take the lead on a given day. Honestly, I often leaned heavily on Kathy for support as she had been through the class previously and it was my first time. However, there were days where the topic was of greater interest to me and I took the lead on the activities and discussions.
I once remarked that I felt like the two of us made a great instructional team. Our personalities complemented each other as she is more extroverted and I’m more introverted. Although Kathy often led, I felt like I had her back and brought much to the table as well to keep things moving forward. Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon come to mind as an analogy.
However, the larger group also presented new challenges. Both of us felt that we had never had a more distracted, self-absorbed group of students than some of those in this bunch. Not everyone was like this, but some were hard to miss. There always seemed to be a din of motion and murmuring, sometimes full voice conversations competing with whomever happened to have the floor, teacher or classmate alike. Some students simply could not sit still or be quiet, which was frustrating at the time, but upon reflection I realized that it showed engagement. Often the side conversations began with some compelling idea being considered in the class. Instead of being irritated by it, I think in the future I need to figure out a way to plan for it and harness it.
What was so important about moving forward anyhow? Why not recognize which ideas most resonate with the students and purposefully build more time in for small group discussions, then later bring it back to the larger group?
But there is definitely a maturity issue in play here and an issue of executive control. Seeing other points of view, including those of teachers and classmates, and exercising empathy are something that need our ongoing attention and practice.
Some of our topics and discussions caused some discomfort. I think that is a good thing as we get students to examine their own beliefs and point of view on things. We had things get to the point where a student just got up and walked out of class, we had more than one heated discussion in which not only the professors, but the more experienced non-traditional aged students exercised leadership in guiding the conversation. I think the most important aspect of this was that we modeled respecting others, even if we disagree.
I think because there were so many cooks with this pot (we had five faculty members teaching multiple sections of this class) there were at times competing philosophies with regard to what and how the course should be taught. At times I think we just had to respectfully agree to disagree.
One of the things I feel we can improve upon is how we begin and end the course. We started with five weeks of administrative tasks and academic theory and we ended with a music concert. In my opinion, we should begin with the concert and conclude with a review of how the pieces fit together in a larger picture.
To me, the worst way one can begin a course is with a discussion of the syllabus’ contents. I want to begin my semester with a bang. As some of my colleagues refer to it, I want to “Rock the First Day.” I always save the syllabus for the second class session. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t “flip” that part of the course and give it as a take-home assignment, with subsequent discussion and assessment that doesn’t even take an entire class session.
But this course began with discussions of syllabus and course policies, the honor system, and other administrative and academic details. And it wasn’t one session either. It took five weeks before we delved into any specific humanities topic. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to discuss information literacy and critical thinking, but we can do these things in the context of examining the various humanities topics like art, literature and the media.
Our librarian, Katherine Jones, is a great and underutilized resource. We had her come in for a joint seminar session to talk about information literacy and how to use the library resources for research. I would like to see her become more involved throughout the semester in the freshman course. She is excellent at what she does, and I think she relates well with students.
On a related note, I felt like our current student demographics are less than an ideal situation. I really feel for the young women attending our classes when they are outnumbered nine to one. Really? In a world where women as a rule are now attending college more often than men, why in the world are there so few women in our classes? I was hopeful about this situation a few years ago when I actually had a computer class with nine women and three men. I thought we had started a new chapter, but it was actually just an outlier year. WE NEED TO FIX THIS ISSUE!
My favorite parts of the semester were all about the arts and humanities. The field trip to the art center to do the downtown sculpture tour, the trip to the Smoky Hill Museum, and the play at the Salina Community Theatre. I was saddened by how many people missed or left early from these events. I’d like to think about some ways to make it difficult to miss or leave early.
We did some additional activities that were engaging. My favorites include the pencil drawing activity we did with drawing each others’ shoes. It was interesting to see how students responded to drawing another person’s shoe. I would like to expand this next time with a lesson from Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain on seeing what is actually there instead of what you think you see. Another favorite was examining the Thanksgiving holiday by reading accounts of the Puritan holiday from various sources, including those of modern Native Americans. The financial literacy portion put on by Kathy was also popular and led to some thoughtful discussions.
Overall, it was a great semester and a great collaboration. I feel like together, Kathy Brockway and I did a great job. I realize the humanities are more my thing than Kathy’s thing, but she brings so much fun and excitement to the course I hate to think of what it would be like without her. If we get the chance to do it again using this format, I know we’ll make it even better next time around.