Mastering Academic Conversations – 2019 edition

In the fall semester of 2019, I taught for the second time a course called Mastering Academic Conversations. This is a class taught for all of our incoming freshmen students and it has a humanities general education component to it. We had around 100 students and I believe six faculty members teaching several different sections of the same course. On Wednesdays we had a plenary session where the different class sections would come together for a large lecture or other joint learning experience.

I taught a survey of humanities course several years ago but had to give it up when we introduced the new digital media degree and I was the only faculty member available to teach those courses. I really enjoyed teaching the humanities course so I was very interested in taking on the M.A.C. course with a similar theme. As it turns out, several of my faculty colleagues are not as excited about the humanities element in this course as I am, because they feel they are not qualified, do not have the interest and expertise, and so forth. As I mentioned, this was my second time through the course, and this past iteration, we had three new instructors for which this was their first time teaching it.

If a teacher is assigned to do a task that they are not excited about or are actively opposed to, there isn’t much you can do to change their mind and the results you get will undoubtedly be mixed at best. However, this is my take on it – you don’t necessarily need to be an expert to teach a survey class in humanities.

How many opportunities to we have to be model learners for our students? How often do we as faculty members put ourselves in the position of learning something new? How often do we allow room for uncertainty? I think we should embrace these opportunities, and show our students how to learn in new domains. I think we should demonstrate approaches to learning that find connections between what we know well and the new things we are trying to learn.

This M.A.C. class, above all things, is about helping new college students be successful in college. So we need to be teaching them good study skills, new learning skills, attitude and mental health skills, all of these things that we expect our students to have. Isn’t it interesting that we expect our students to hunker down, suck it up, or whatever it takes to get through a curriculum of courses that includes subjects they love and hate, but when it comes to our own lives, we naturally, as any human being does, gravitate towards the things we like and shy away from the things we dislike or know nothing about?

Scheduling Conflict

Fall of 2019 was a really unusual semester for me because of strangeness in scheduling, I was double-booked on courses. I had M.A.C. at the exact same time as a Visual Communications studio course I was scheduled to be team-teaching in another room. Needless to say, I was never in two places at once, and since the VisComm class was longer in length, I would make an appearance after my M.A.C class had ended. It was a studio, so this wasn’t really a problem, but it made me feel out of the loop, because a lot of the updates, assignments, discussions and so forth happen at the beginning of a class period, not later on. Occasionally, when we were critiquing a project or something, the group would wait for me to arrive after my other class, but even so I felt mostly like an outsider and would prefer to never have this double-scheduling again if possible.

M.A.C. Innovations

I did several things differently this go-around in the MAC class. For instance, on the very first day of class, before we made introductions, I kicked the class off by playing ukulele and having a sing-along. Believe it or not, new freshmen will sing along with you on the first day if you act like it is expected and you are enthusiastic about it. I was amazed! I was singing the cowboy song AbileneĀ which is so repetitive, it is easy to sing along on the chorus, so about the third time through I (half-jokingly) said “Everybody!” and they started singing Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town that I’ve ever seen…” I highly recommend starting a class like this with a song.

Also new this semester, we did a “Speed Friending” activity that I’ve been thinking about doing for community-building and getting to know each other. This is simply a new spin on the old “Speed Dating” idea in which you form two groups of people, where one group sits on one side of a table, and the other group moves from one person to the next over a set period of time. I’ll have to check the details of what we did for certain, but I think we allowed 2-3 minutes for a conversation, so each party could ask questions of their partner from a “cheat sheet” of pre-prepared questions, or ask one of their own. That way in the course of an hour, they would meet a large number of others taking the same course. We gave them time to exchange contact information to make “study buddies” and then we asked them to submit a list of names and how they would stay in contact with their new friends. This activity was well-received and a great way to begin a semester in a large class as well.

Each week, our class has themes, typically as suggested by the teaching faculty based on their interests and expertise, and during our large-lecture day on Wednesday, the lead faculty on that topic leads an activity or lecture on that theme. I led two weeks this past semester, one on Digital and Media Literacy, which was similar to what I did the previous year and another on Art History.

For media literacy, I had a campfire video, and arranged the chairs in the room in a semi-circle around the “fire.” I told stories of how human communication has evolved over the millennia, starting with tales around a fire; fire being one of the first memes or ideas to go viral. We discussed memes and how they get and hold our attention. I showed how most of the technologies that we currently use have been introduced in the very recent history of human communication. Books have been around for centuries, writing much longer than that, images were the first written communication, but our digital tech is something old and something new. We are returning to the visual, the auditory, the storytelling roots of the campfire, but at the same time we are turning inward, we are using media to put distance between ourselves and others and we wonder why we are sad.

I gave a media literacy assignment that encouraged using Social Media for the serious purpose of following experts in their chosen field to begin building a personal learning network.

The other theme I led was in Art History. This was something new. Again, there was a conflict on my week to do the Art History lecture because I had to go out of town on a recruiting trip. So I spend several hours making and recording a video lecture called You Should Know This Image.


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