The wonderful opportunity to work as a Fellow and Director of Studies at a brand-new residential college at the National University of Singapore from June 2011 until January 2018, allowed me to become part of the effort to ‘humanize’ higher education as a route to transforming it.
In the unique set-up of Tembusu College, this meant figuring out – together with colleagues and students – how to create an inspiring and empowering environment inside our classrooms and beyond. It also involved a commitment to supporting students’ learning in a holistic way, such that intellectual, professional and personal development are not divorced from one another.
This work also brought me in touch with like-minded educational innovators from around the world. Particularly important was the mentorship of David E. Goldberg, and his writing on whole-person engagement and the culture of the classroom/university as a focus for intervention and change. With Kurt Paterson from James Madison University, I currently co-chair the Big Beacon Education Innovators Working Group which was created by Dave to bring people engaged in heart-and-mind-type educational innovation in conversation with one another.
This page is a work-in-progress! For a start, I am sharing some of my learning and favourite books about course design, the relational side of teaching and the culture of the classroom. I plan to add more writing about what I learned from working at Tembusu College and its connection to the broader effort of transformation higher education. In the meantime, find an interview with me about Tembusu as a living-learning space here.
The class that taught itself
When I taught in the Sociology Department at the National University of Singapore from 2008-2011, there was one class in which students showed so much ownership that it felt as though I barely had to do anything. It was a seminar called Qualitative Data Collection, with about 40 students.
With hindsight, I did three things right in how I set this up:
- assuming students were genuinely interested in being there and learning something about qualitative research skills
- giving students a degree of control over their engagement with the class by having a 'dual track' instead of setting a one-size-fits-all expectation. (The idea for this came from Michael Fischer and I just love it.)
- creating a structure for students to read and ask questions about qualitative research, then organizing discussion and interactive teaching around these questions.
Years later, reading Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward Deci, helped me make sense of why this worked so well: getting out my students' way (that is, not killing their self-motivation) was as important as the support and content expertise I offered them.
Hidden and overt agendas
I am a fan of 'constructive alignment' as an approach to course development. I like it, in particular, as an approach to cut through interaction patterns that keep classroom engagement pleasant, but do not necessarily support real learning.
The book on this is Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does, by John Biggs and Catherine Tang. The gist is that faculty members should rethink their assessment practices, making sure the gap between what we say we want students to learn and what we assess them on is as small as possible .
Too often, students experience a gap between the overt agenda of the class - the intentions we express for their learning - and the hidden agenda - the ways we assess them. If I write in my syllabus that I want students to think for themselves and then grade them primarily on how well they can reproduce a set of readings, the gap is there.
Two unfortunate results then emerge: my students get a signal that they can't really trust me, and they focus their time and efforts on satisfying the hidden agenda. (In the best case scenario, a few of the brightest students do take up the invitation to think for themselves, but that comes about as 'extra'.)
This is not the students' fault. Given the stakes and power dynamics involved, prioritizing the hidden agenda makes perfect sense.
The solution known as 'constructive alignment' is to minimize the gap: make it so that the path to acing the exam (or other assignments) and the path to learning something really valuable and meaningful are one and the same.
What I like most about this is the respect shown for students' time and energy, and the way it supports less-prepared or weaker students as well as stronger students (value of inclusivity).
That example really brought it to life for me. It made me change my course on Fakes - tweaking its assignments so they call forth more directly, and more centrally, the intellectual and social skills I want my students to develop. It also informed our co-taught Tembusu course on Time and Life.
I would not now design a course without attending to the spirit of constructive alignment.
Most of my university teaching so far has been in 'general education' (not courses within a discipline) for undergraduates. After a while, I stopped trying to replicate how I was taught Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Visual Culture as an undergraduate, eye-opening and wonderful as that was.
I placed less and less emphasis on particular content for students to digest, and more and more on the sensibilities I wanted them to acquire.
This means there are now very few STS or visual culture research publications on my syllabus, even though my teaching is heavily influenced by those fields. I only very sparingly use the approach of ‘read this and try to understand the very exciting theoretical payoff... (and if you don't get it I'll guide you)...'.
Instead, I get students to train their analytical sensibilities on a wide variety of examples and case study materials - academic and not.
For this approach to work well, the materials you select are important - they need to be evocative. Even better if students source some of these themselves.
To create coherence and a sense of progression for the course, you also have to be quite clear (and, I think, parsimonious) about what analytical sensibilities you want to teach.
For me these have been the same for many years! They were what excited and empowered me as an undergrad and ever since, making me feel better at home in, more interested in, and more able to make sense of, the world.
How I name them varies, but they are about:
- relations - how things hang together, and the dynamism of that
- distinctions - how similarity and difference are articulated and defined
- it could be otherwise - the 'classic' STS formulation for probing and deconstructing the taken-for-granted
I associate these sensibilities with STS (where I encountered them first), but they're not exclusive to that field. These are good general education sensibilities for educated world citizens - sharpening and expanding our ability to think, question, and take more into account.
Being human in the classroom
I find that teaching and learning are significantly less stressful and more fulfilling if faculty and students can be 'human', or authentic, in their interactions with one another. This means explicitly inviting idiosyncrasy, imperfection and 'side business' (aka, life) into the classroom.
This starts with the person of the teacher. Nowhere have I seen the case for this more powerfully made than in The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer. I felt a great sense of relief and permission from the way he advocates for teachers to stay true to themselves in the classroom.
“Here is a secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning." (Parker, The Heart of a Teacher)
Teaching with integrity to oneself, Parker believes, is how we can serve our students best. It also paves the way for continuous learning how to teach better, but from a place of sure-footed integration as opposed to waving with the latest winds of university pedagogy.
I've been lucky to have seen quite a bit of my colleagues' teaching at Tembusu College, and Parker's insistence that good teaching comes in many different forms rings very true to me.
Another resource for humanizing the classroom I highly recommend is Nancy Kline's Time to Think. This book - which, like Palmer's, extends into a movement with its own training courses etc. - helped me enroll students in an intentional effort to design our classroom culture.
Kline's argument that "[t]he quality of your attention determines the quality of other people's thinking" (p.36) really shifted my own and my students' understanding of classroom engagement.
Her framework takes a stand for both connection and individuality, fostering an environment as conducive as possible for people to (1) learn from each other, yet (2) think for themselves.
The respect, freedom and authenticity I have seen this create, provides a tremendous boost for learning.