My student asked me a question

I think of this post as a sequel to “The Reverend Asked Me A Question.” It’s even more poignant for me, if that’s possible, because there’s a certain fresh and meta quality to the question of “how did you think about teaching our class when you were teaching our class?” when it’s asked by a sophomore just one year after the class, a sophomore who’s now trying to do something of the same thing in another schooling context.

The exchange was so powerful for me that I asked the student for permission to reproduce the emails here. She has graciously consented. I’ll have a few bits of commentary along the way, but mostly I’m letting the conversation stand on its own. I think my answer to her question may illuminate some of my practices as a teacher. If so, and anyone finds that useful, that’s great. Yet for me the even greater value is emotional, or spiritual–hard to know the difference, perhaps. It’s a little window onto the heart of one part of one teacher, and even more poignantly, a window onto the heart of a student who has gone up one more meta-level, one she ascended by herself with some bread for the journey she found–helped to make–a year ago in a very special class I was very lucky to be part of.

Her name is Brooke Baugher. She was one-half of the “meta team” in “From Memex to YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet,” a course I taught last spring (2013) at Virginia Tech. The course was cross-listed as a 400-level Honors Seminar as well as a 500-level graduate course in the Preparing the Future Professoriate program. We had two freshmen, one sophomore with senior-level credits earned, and two engineering graduate students. It was a truly extraordinary, transformative experience for me. You had to be there and I wish you had been–but you may (probably will) get some of the flavor of it by looking at the project the meta-team (Brooke and Nathaniel Settle) made. The course description? They wrote it, once the course was done. Or rather, they wrote them, as the course could be described in many aligned yet distinct ways. Here’s one: “4 Months. 30 Classes. 17 Readings. 6 Learners. One Mission: Take The Deep Dive.” Please note that five students were enrolled in this class, but when these two students did a headcount, they counted six. You see? Ah. Oh, and by the way, the essay on this page is one of the most brilliant pieces of student work I’ve ever encountered. Analysis, synthesis, demonstration, performance: it’s all there. I’ll leave that exploration as an exercise for the reader.

For further context, here’s the syllabus. And here’s the class motherblog.

And now here’s the exchange, which begins with this email from Brooke:

Mar. 5, 2014

Subject: haaaalllppppp

Hi Dr. C!

So I am TAing (of sorts) for a class that I took last year. I talked about it a lot in our class; I’m not sure if you remember it, but I ranted about pink time a couple times.
Brief background: it’s a project where the professor cancels class three days out of a semester, and the students are encouraged to go learn about whatever they want. Then, the next class we come back and talk about all of the projects, make connections, etc.
So I am in charge of trying to improve out of class engagement, and I am using social media. So I have a twitter account, and we have a facebook page. BUT. I am having so much difficulty getting the students to participate and ask questions between each other outside of class that isn’t a requirement.
I just have one question for you: how in the world did you make us so involved?! I am hitting a wall with what else I can do to increase this. Any advice that you have would be super greatly appreciated.
Miss you!

Brooke :)

It took me awhile to answer, as the question stirred me to the core. Eventually I regained my gumption and took the leap.

March 11, 2014

Hi Brooke,

I miss you too. :)

You’ve asked me just about the hardest question you could ask. Any
answer I can imagine would probably seem either silly or overly simple
or crazily complex. But maybe that’s just me being self-conscious. I
struggle with that.

What I always try to do, whenever I teach, is to arrange the class as
a shared project. We’re making a movie together. We’re making a record
together. We’re building a house together. The whole meta-team idea
was an extreme version of something I now recognize I’d been doing for
decades. The idea of the course as a series of meetings, all
self-contained, has always been boring to the point of hysteria for
me. I’d have a similar reaction (have had, in fact) to a PowerPoint
presentation full of inane and obvious bullet points and nothing
else–no images, no video, no sound, nothing out of the ordinary. Same
thing. All inert lists.

Over time, inert lists have come to be expected by many students,
maybe even most students. They actually come to prefer it, very often.
Inert lists make everything so much more manageable. Stuff in stacks.
I didn’t want stuff in stacks. I wanted art or mystery or eureka or
games or symphonies or laboratories or studios.

So when I teach, I try to convey, in every way I can imagine, that
this is not going to be an experience of stuff in stacks. And every
time I sense a student is going along with the idea of
no-stuff-in-stacks, I try to reward that right away with attention and
commitment and equal blends of zaniness and intensity. When one
fishes, there’s an art to landing the fish: the line has to be taut,
but not so taut that it snaps or the fish gets away somehow. It takes
a lot of patient back-and-forth and an art of the line as subtle as
how a violinist holds her bow to make the strings sing. (Not to worry:
I’m a catch-and-release kind of fisherman, though I do eat fish, I
will confess.)

What’s never worked, in my experience, is making 90% of the experience
stuff-in-stacks and making 10% “freedom to learn,” because the 90%
just overwhelms the 10%. Truth to tell, “stuff-in-stacks” can
overwhelm “freedom to learn” even at the 5% level. Stuff-in-stacks is
a poison and it doesn’t take much to kill the learning.

I don’t know if any of that is helpful. All I can say this morning is
that I try as hard as I can to help nudge the class forward in its
journey, its project, its writing-itself-into-being. I try as hard as
I can to let the class nudge me forward, too, because I’m also in it
for the learning. And I try to do this with an absolute minimum, as
close to zero as I can make it, of stuff-in-stacks. This is one of the
reasons I love the internet. The web, at least so far, is full of what
Walt Whitman calls “barbaric yawps.” These yawps can be like throwing
a window wide open in the early spring, just before it’s really warm
enough to do so, but just when you really want to because the stale
inside winter air is just too stifling. So we shiver some, and we take
in the cold air, and we smell some of the mud and early growth of
just-spring, and our brains clear and our hearts beat faster for just
a little while. And sometimes that’s enough to get everyone over the
school-as-stuff-in-stacks hump and we can get another magic moment and
recapture that feeling of determined yes.

I don’t mind syllabi or semesters. I kind of like final exams. I love
projects and highly refined and purposeful zaniness. When creative
thinking and critical thinking marry and have a child, the child’s
name is joy–it’s the same child born to Cupid and Psyche in the old
tale by Apuleius.

You’re working very hard to push a huge rock up a steep hill. When I
teach, I have the opportunity to frame the whole encounter very
differently. You don’t have that opportunity. But you do have
extraordinary shining eyes and a heart for adventure and a mind for
keen insight. So I’d say you should talk with the students, heart to
heart, and tell them what your dreams are for this experience, and
then see if anyone responds. If anyone does, then find a way to
celebrate that, and keep on hoping that the response will catch on.

Remember: shining eyes.

Dr. C.

P.S. Would you mind if I put this whole exchange up on my blog? Your
question is so powerful and beautiful, and my answer comes from the
heart and might also be of some use to other folks. If you’d rather
not, I think I will put my answer up there anyway, with just enough
context (no identifiable items though) to explain why I’m writing
this. It would be very powerful to have both up there, though, if
you’re willing.

Did I tell you already how much I miss you–and our class? I learned
so very much. We had us a time.

And then Brooke responded:

March 12, 2014

Hi!

I have much more to respond, but I just have a few minutes as of now-I’m heading in for my first job interview, yikes!

I wouldn’t mind at all if you shared this on your blog! But thank you so much, that definitely helps. I’m gonna keep working with what I’ve got, it seems like some of then are growing keen to the conversation, so we will see!

You should come back and visit us!

Brooke :)

Yes, I should. I hope to someday.

Thank you, Brooke. Thank you, vtclis13. Thank you, all the dear people unnamed here who made all of this possible and, against some odds, more likely. My teachers, my friends, my colleagues.

2 thoughts on “My student asked me a question

  1. Gardner,

    Thanks for sharing this response. I appreciate the way you were able to take the challenge of student engagement and articulate your seasoned experience as metaphor.

    Learning is a never ending quest, and when the ownership shifts from the professor to the student as an equal participant in the process that is, indeed, a magical moment.

    I think back to the professors who inspired me. There is no formula, but you have come close to articulating a key part…whether that be built on trust, inspiration, or something else, I appreciate your candidness.

    Keep writing,

    Alex

  2. My dear Gardner,

    It feels strange to start this comment like this as we have never met.

    Yet, it is your love for the web as much as Cogdog’s that has kept me encouraged to learn how to be an open educator through the many challenges – mainly to do with meeting rigid own views that needed changing but were a little stuck. In reading your reply I see why I feel such closeness without having met you – you have the same passion for making learning a live and present experience for both yourself and your students as I do. So much in education is ‘stuff-in-stacks’ now and I see that the web has the potential for ‘getting magic moments and recapturing that feeling of determined yes’. I see that it can offer ways for critical and creative thought to marry and get the joy of learning for the sheer hell of it!

    When I teach now I too can define the frames for the encounter and we are so lucky to have that. I am so glad that I never listened when I was told that ‘I needed to streamline my delivery’ so that my University could make more money. I was spending too long being creative and not enough delivering inert lists. I left. And now with people like yourself, Alan, Jim, and other DS106 folk I don’t feel so alone anymore. Outside this oasis though, there is still a sense of ‘wild west’ to it all. I keep exploring though feeling like you all have my back :)

    I thank you for that and for this post which clearly comes from a place where no stack can ever be created.

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