Why I Write This Blog

I recently had the opportunity to visit with some old friends who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. We met in the hullabaloo of downtown Montreal and we talked about the past. The city, my friend told me, had changed, and so had I. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad. But for the sake of my sanity, I’m going to hope that – like a good wine – my adopted city and I improve with age (*cough-wheeze-eherm*  yeah, right). Alongside this conversation, his wife and I chatted about our shared passion: teaching. This part of the afternoon was a rare treat, as my friends are both former teachers, who returned to the university to take their PhDs at the same time that I was starting mine. One is a historian, like me, and the other is in the education faculty, so you can imagine my delight at the conversation.

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[Sad, but true: the Euro Deli is gone]

 

What is the point of this lengthy and seemingly random introduction, you ask? Well, it got me thinking about a few things. The emphasis on change reminded me how much we learn and how fast we adapt. And the conversation about teaching made me cognizant of the fact that learning, in many contexts, means shamelessly absconding with the brilliant ideas of others. I like to think that I have something of a knack for teaching, but I’m not formally trained as an educator. Rather, I’ve gotten where I am through trial and error, genuine interest in the challenges posed by higher education, and – apparently – by stealing ideas from those around me. During this particular conversation, I was planning on carrying off a few lessons about “think, pair, share.”

For those of you who don’t know the concept, “think, pair, share” involves presenting students with some material, and asking them a question about it. Then, after they’ve had a moment to think, letting them talk about the issue in pairs. Finally, when this is done, the class comes back together and students can share their thoughts with the large group if they feel comfortable doing so. I’ve done things similar in the past and one of the most successful of such activities was something I tried on the first day of my Modern European History class. Instead of just reading the syllabus, I gave the students excerpts from Francis Fukuyama and asked them: (1) what is history? And (2) can it end? They were given 20 minutes to read, then assigned to groups of five, after which they were given another 15 minutes to discuss. By the time we came back together as a class, people had made some new friends and were excited to share their ideas. I came back to this discussion on the very last day. So, I’m not entirely useless on my own. But sometimes I lack refinement.

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[Getting the conversation going in a lecture setting is a constant challenge]

 

By talking with a trained educator, I realized that I lacked clarity and focus when it came to the nature of the exercise, and I started to see how I could play with the core principles so that one could use the activity more quickly, without having to siphon so much time away from lectures. I also started to see how I could use it as part of a chain of activities that built upon one another, or how the model could be transferred to an online setting. And I can take absolutely zero credit for any of these epiphanies.  Let’s face it folks, there are limits to our own expertise and creativity, and sometimes you just need to beg, borrow, and steal if you want to improve. In fact, now that I think about it, most of the things I do best as a teacher are modified versions of things that I’ve flagrantly ripped off from my friends, my mentors, or the all-knowing internet.

 

All of this links to another conversation I’ve been having with a different friend: teaching at the college or university level is kind of weird. The classroom itself is inherently collaborative; it takes a give-and-take exchange between the instructor and the students to make it work. And yet, much of the real work involved in imparting knowledge and skillsets – writing the lectures, drafting the assignments, marking – is done in isolation. We sit in our offices, under the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights, and fiddle with our syllabi, drinking coffee and glaring out into the hallway like trolls looking up from under a bridge (OK, so you may not do this, but I am totally that person). Until recently, this seemed normal enough. I am, after all, a historian, and we pride ourselves on our “Lone Ranger” approach to research.

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[Ok, so it probably doesn’t look this shiny when we try it]

 

But you can’t be the Lone Ranger if you want to be a good teacher. Teaching is hard, even if you’re good at it… even if you love it as much as I do. I’d go so far as to say that it can be damn near impossible sometimes,  even if you’re lucky enough to have a Tonto – just ask my TAs, they have my back and I still turn into a snarling psycho-bitch on a semi-regular basis.  Teaching is time-consuming, demanding and sometimes thankless work. It forces you constantly to adapt because each new cohort has different cultural referents and different needs, and it will occasionally drain you of every last bit of mental energy if you’re doing it right. If you try to cope with this on your own, you’re going to fail. Period. The end. And the full experience of that failure will come with the added bonus of your students resenting you for being out of touch.  

The best way to avoid this scenario is to collaborate and to share ideas amongst one another. I think we need to be a little less worried about looking like we don’t know what we’re doing as teachers –professors are never trained as pedagogues, so why should we – and a little more open about asking for help. We need to form stronger communities and have more lively conversations about teaching – conversations more like the ones we have about research – and to stop assuming this is just an issue for early-career scholars. This will allow us to share our good ideas, and steal the even better ones put forward by our peers. There’s absolutely nothing to be lost by taking this approach, and everything to be gained. In a nutshell, then, this is why I’m writing this blog.

In the past I’ve discussed pedagogy and higher education informally with colleagues, one at a time, over coffee or beer. This blog is my modest attempt to contribute to the creation of a more sustained conversation that takes place in the public sphere. As always, I encourage you to leave you own thoughts in the comments below, and I look forward from learning more from you than I can possibly give back in return.

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