Menschel Musings #1: Up and Running

As I write this first entry of my new blog on the 7th day of December, I’m stunned to realize that my term as the Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow for 2012-13 is almost half over!  With each passing day, I continue to be impressed with the enormous amount of talent that resides in the Center for Teaching Excellence and the enormous devotion to teaching that I’m coming to learn is already so pervasive among our faculty. I’m also finding my teaching own style – content, delivery, you name it – being challenged in ways I never imagined.

Learning outcomes as a starting point for course development?  Sure, I know that university accreditation depends on all of us to provide a concise list of learning outcomes for every college, every  major and every course.  And I’ve played ball as the requests from on high have come my way.   But you know, it was easier for me to respond to those pleas for declarations of how my students’ attitudes would change and what new challenges they would be able to answer after my courses had already been on the books for a decade or more. By then, trial and error had inadvertently led me to my comfort zone.  Now I’m developing a new course and my CTE colleagues think I should have those outcomes up front; like they think I should know what my destination is before I leave the garage!  Hmmm … that’s a novel concept!

Then there is the plea to build more active learning into my courses.    Isn’t writing down every pearl of wisdom that flows from my lips active enough?  Is it really worthwhile (and safe for me!) to stop talking once in a while so they can actually put that new knowledge to work?    “Yup…,” my CTE friends say “…it is.”  “Would you like to see the data to prove it?”  I said “OK” to a similar data offer earlier and that was enough. Three days later I emerged from a pile of papers looking much like the judge at the Santa Claus trial in “Miracle on 34th Street” … overwhelmed and exhausted but convinced that yes, indeed – if I was willing to change, I might actually do a better job at what I already thought was a lock .

Now they want me to think about flipping my classroom!  Can you imagine that? There might actually be something to be gained by letting the students not only ask the questions but answer them?  What if their questions catch me off guard? What if their answers are wrong? What if I have to tell them I don’t know if they’re right or wrong? What if they get into an argument and I totally lose control? What if they take up so much valuable class time that there’s not enough left for me?  Can’t we just leave things the way they have been for the last half century or so?  “Of course, we can,” is the polite reply.  “And would you like us to wheel your chair over to the window so you can better see the rest of the world pass you by?”

For better or worse, there is lots happening in the educational arena and most of it promises to change us for the better.  I sure hope so.  The plea I occasionally hear from students to “Just tell me what I have to know for the exam!” isn’t a particularly gratifying outcome from my best efforts to instill curiosity, inquisitiveness, amazement at the way the world works, and a celebration of new knowledge just because it’s there.  If there is a better way, I say “Bring it on,” and if you are of a like mind  (or not!) …. stay tuned.

[George Hudler is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.  He succeeds Professors David Feldshuh and Ron Harris-Warrick as the third Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow and he is also a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.  New additions to this blog will appear intermittently (hopefully bi-weekly) during the remainder of the 2012-13 academic term.]

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