Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer School 2010 — One of the Best Classes in Memory

I watched "The Paper Chase" again last week for the first time in years. I'd been having such a fabulous summer session — with some of the best classroom discussions in years — that I wanted to share the opening scenes with my students on the day before the final exam — and not just so they'd get a look at Professor Kingsfield's method. I love how the movie opens with the first-year law students settling into their seats on the first day of class with the caption "Harvard Law School" flashing at the screen just as John Houseman enters the room. It does capture that supreme sense of both excitement and fear that is the college classroom experience, all the more so since it's Harvard. We couldn't watch the whole movie, of course, and amazingly not one of my students had seen it, so perhaps they'll dwell on it if they find it while surfing the cable channels in the future.

Teaching this summer was a lot different for a number of reasons: We're fully moved into the
South Quad Complex, and the new classrooms are fully modernized with smart technology; the computer console/media setup is extremely user-friendly, which facilitates use of short video clips for quick discussion launchers; I'm using a new textbook, one that offers an "exceptionalist" take on American politics, and one that helped drive some dramatic sections; lots of university students attend community college in the summer, to save money and finish up their G.E., so they help elevate the quality of the experience; I also had two Iraq war veterans and a public relations officer from the Long Beach Police Department, and they further added to the diversity of the summer session; and I taught just this one class, which left me with more time to think about my students and how to improve instruction.

All of that, plus after ten years at LBCC I'm more comfortable in my methods than ever. I try less to be a Professor Kingsfield and more like when I was younger — i.e., more hip and laid back, and even more understanding.

In any case, things really came together. Not only were the sections dynamic and endlessly vibrant, but the students were not shy in sharing their feedback on the learning experience. Some classes go better than others (every classroom is different), and you'll know when you're hitting it off. But I was surprised and honored that the students put together
some thank you cards on the day before the final. One student in particular had a life-changing experience. His comments are up on the "guys" card at top right:

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Professor Douglas!!! I have never been so excited to come to class as I was this semester! You are a tremendous leader and a Class-A example of looking at both sides of stories. Thank you for your passion for teaching.
At top left, a UCI student comments:
You've made me realize that your political ideas should be based on sound knowledge/reasoning. Thanks ....
Now that is interesting! It seems to me that upper-division students at a top-tiered public university would have already gotten instruction in "sound knowledge/reasoning"? Or maybe that's just a good reflection on the (non)quality of instruction at UCI, where the reputation's as one of the most radical campuses in the country.

The students signed the cards on the same morning that I showed "The Paper Chase" clip. I went around the entire room and asked each student their major and their plans for college and beyond — and I called on each by name to personally validate and humanize their participation and experience. Lots of students are majoring in psychology, and they laughed when I joked that I was now recruiting political scientists! But some took that discussion to heart. It made them think about what they were doing in the context of the career aspirations of the others. As one fellow wrote, on the left at middle-top:
Professor Douglas ... It's been an interesting summer session, and the discussion today has made me consider my immediate future a little more. Keep doing what you are doing.
Reading the card from the "girls" seemed almost like reading farewells in a high school yearbook at graduation! The comments had more of that kind of a feel, for example, at the ladies' card center-left:
Thank you for being a great teacher! You are one of the funniest teachers I've had a LBCC. I know I'm not the best student although I try as hard as I can but thank you for taking your summer to teach us!
And this one, second to the bottom at right:
Thank you for being a cool guy. I really appreciate teachers who take the time to emotionally reach out to students. Sorry I couldn't have been a better student! Anyways, thanks for the fun lectures! I'll miss them. Thanks and have a great summer.
Some of the other comments are readable at the picture above. Not all the students in class signed the cards, but 42 students took the final exam, which ended up being almost 100 percent retention (a key measure of classroom effectiveness from the administration's perspective, especially when the drop-out rated exceeds 50 percent for a lot of professors) .

In any case, I mostly wanted to share all this with readers.

It takes a long time to get truly comfortable in the classroom. Teaching is not a natural ability for a lot of people, and even for great teachers it takes a while to warm up the inner attributes that can enliven a classroom and change lives. Meanwhile, I don't push myself off as some kind of "Master Teacher" or "Expert Instructor." We have a few like that on my campus. Folks who dominate curriculum development and are fairly closed-minded on pedagogical inputs from others. I just do my thing. I teach it right down the middle. With the new textbook I'm making more of an explicit effort to counteract left-wing indoctrination on campus, but as you can see from the students' comments, the kids appreciate a balanced approach that focuses on sound argument and careful evidence.

I think this is also important in the context of blogging as well. I don't use the blog in class, although some of my idiot antagonists online love to launch attacks on AmPower as perverted and "creepy." For example, after eviscerating Scott Eric Kaufman the other day, the LGM lamebrain
commented at the post (twice actually, since comments are moderated, and Insecure Little Scotty wanted to be sure he got his digs in):
You've got me there. My whole world view invalidated by a spelling error. No amount of having taught Dispatches can ever take back that typo ... on the internet, at least among children. Please, tell me how teaching critical thinking and persuasive writing through complex texts with students are familiar is necessarily a bad thing? I await your silence, since the last time you thought twice about pedagogy was when you decided which of the beautiful ladies in the second row would require the bulk of your creepy attention. For the rest of us, we aim to teach.
Scott proves correct my criticisms of him: He never once has acknowledged he's not that good with language, which is not good, since he's an English professor. So word to Scotty: Your use of "flack" wasn't a spelling error or a typo. You didn't know the differences. And you'd show some intellectual maturity by just admitting that you still have things to learn, even in what should be your field of expertise. And no, Scott, as you can see above, this isn't the "last time" I thought about pedagogy. A good professor thinks of it whenever she sets foot in the classroom. And my sense is that trolling the conservative 'sphere for snarky attack material against your ideological enemies is eminently more "creepy" than your allusion to "beautiful ladies."

2 comments:

Dennis said...

One of the greatest joys one can have in teaching or helping others is when that "aha" moment happens. I was teaching a class, in which decisions made had several ramification not the least of was that it affected the safety of the end user, where I presented the material with an emphasis on aiding in the decision making of the students. There were always a few who tried to get me to make a decision for them in their work and that, because I would not be the person on the scene and not have all of the pertinent facts available to them, necessarily avoided.
I had one student who just kept pushing so I finally had him put all of the possibilities on the board and then asked him to try making the decision by what it is "not" instead of what it "is." As he removed the possibilities he saw the answer. I hope that it helped him and the class to see that problem solution can be accomplished in a number of ways and to not allow themselves to be limited by one approach.
In problem solving sometimes the answer lies not in what it is, but many times in what it is not.
Congratulations Donald on, as a number stated, on getting your students not only to learn the material, but to recognize that everything they learn is there to aid them in their own thinking.

Donald Douglas said...

Thanks Dennis.