Category Archives: Dumb things I do

Before we start class…

There’s so much theatrics in teaching. Some classrooms have literal stages and podiums. There’s a definite feeling of what should be called the Fourth Wall There’s a moment when the teacher stops being whatever they are before they start each class and then they become The Professor. You can feel it like sharp intake of breath: you become the content at that moment. College classes are bound by space (RAWLS 1086, Purdue Campus), but mostly time. If it’s 8:30 on a Monday, you know that you are “in” MGMT 190 and are “listening” to The Professor.

The interesting part of “class” time is that it’s very fragile and very hierarchical. You are in MGMT 190 from 8:30 until 9:20 only if I, The Professor, say you are. I could cancel class. We could end early. Then the time becomes your own again. I remember in college I had a professor who used to joke that if he ended class early that you should take it out of our tuition checks. We decide their grade, we decide when they have met the objectives; they are to whom we deal the precious As and slap down with the dreaded Fs.

As such, the start of class is very interesting, since it’s ultimately up to you (The Professor) when the class starts and you become The Professor. Of course we know as educators this start is a fallacy. Learning doesn’t stop when The Professor says it has to stop. That’s in fact a great crises in high education: we tell the students “now you learn” and somehow that isn’t enough. Learning doesn’t happen on command. But it can be invited in.

It’s something like this:
Before we start class, I want you to think about the last time you had to use information to make a decision. Where did you look? When did you know that you had enough information to decide?”

Sometimes I do this because I know students are going to be late and the start of class actually is postponed. Sometimes it’s because I want students to answer less formally and think about their lives not as students but as people. It’s a little of a trick to create a space for teaching that has is a little disconnected with the formal space of the classroom.

This question situates the learner to act before the formal confines of the “class” where students “learn”. That’s very important, especially in so-called soft skills like information literacy, because often the spaces where students have to use that information are outside the narrow confines of when “official” learning happens in classroom. We care more, possibly the most, about informal learning as librarians. Like most things in a classroom, this is situational. Sometimes you don’t have the rapport with a group of students to create an informal learning space. After all, creating an informal learning space requires trust, sometimes trust that may have been broke already by someone else. But I think it’s important to think of opportunities to invite such learning.

Researching on Purpose

Filed right behind “Teaching on Accident” is “Researching on Accident”. I never intended to be a researcher either, but I took a job where researching was an important part of the libraries’ mission. I was a history major in my undergraduate, so I knew how to write, but I had never really thought much about social science research: how to do it, why to do it. The type of research that I did for my (two!) undergraduate thesis papers was almost entirely primary documents historical research, mostly at the trusty microfilm machine. I never had to think about human subjects because of all of my subjects were either dead or really, really dead.

I’m a pretty plucky person, I don’t scare easily, and I jumped right into research when I got to Purdue. During my first two years I attended all manner of different programs to better understand how to do research better.

I found the single most important thing in performing research is asking good questions. The research question should:

  • Be interesting to you
  • Help you do your job better
  • Have an answer
  • Be the sort of question where either answer is publishable and interesting.
  • Be sort of scary.

The last two things are the most important. Let’s say you did something really innovative and hard that very successful. You can’t ask a question like “How awesome was that instruction that I just did?” because if the answer is “not that awesome”, what are you going to do? That study is not going to be very helpful to other people. While failure is certainly more interesting than success, I think it’s too easy for people to have multiple reasons for failure, whereas people are much more comfortable with success that is attributed to one single factor.

Questions that are a little scary are even better because that means that they might just a little innovative because innovative questions are almost always scary. Now it’s okay for a question to only be “sort of” scary versus totally scary as you start out because after all you are publishing things outside in the field and you don’t want to research anything too scary because that might make your institution look bad. 

You will find that you were wrong about almost everything by the end of the project. Working and reflecting on something for months has that effect. Don’t be afraid to be humbled. Push through the terrible truth of being wrong. It’s really hard to be wrong, and you can be wrong in so many different ways in the research that you will probably be wrong in multiple ways. Maybe you didn’t read enough of the literature and you missed studies. Maybe the data collection did not go as planned. Maybe you found something halfway through that might have known something. Push through. Projects don’t need to be perfect, they need to be published.

In addition here are some other tips for people getting started.

  • Pick a good team. I personally discourage a project from having more than three people actively managing the project, because I really think by four authors, one of the team members is probably spending most of their time managing the other three members and not really contributing to the project actively anymore. Try to pick people who bring different perspectives
  • Pick a citation manager. You should probably pick a citation manager that is what other people you are working with use. Since it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, it is easiest just to use what is most common in your work area, That just makes things easier. I use Mendeley, most because when I got to Purdue, the people I worked with were using Mendeley.
  • Be nice to the people who administrate human subject research. At Purdue they hold office hours, and they would love for you to ask questions about how to do ethical research. Like librarians, they love to help!
  • Create multiple outputs/exit opportunities for your projects. You should think about different stages where you can abandon the project if it goes awry, so you don’t spend too much time on a project that isn’t that interesting to you. Most of my projects have an initial scoping presentation, a primary resources presentation, a first paper with possible future work and sometimes the opportunity for a follow up second paper building on the first. That way you can take projects as far as you want and then say no.
  • You can do it. You are amazing, your hair looks amazing, ask those hard questions.

via GIPHY

Active Learning: What to do With Yourself

Active learning is amazing in many ways. One of the ways that it is amazing is that it allows the professor to fine tune the brick-and-mortar classroom experiences to really focus on the muddiest, trickiest part of the learning process in a way that you could not before. Student centered teaching shifts the focus of the classroom from the instructor. Students can grapple with the most challenging part of the assignment together, with your help, so that you can really find that spot where student keep getting tripped up and adjust their conceptions, which leads to better outcomes on course deliverables.

The reason it’s so tricky is because sometimes that also means you spend less time lecturing, which being a university instructor, is probably something you are pretty good at. When I stopped lecturing as much in classes, I had even more time to engage with students and make those direct contacts that are so satisfying to you as a teacher. But I also noticed you need to be careful to make sure to design activities for yourself.

I get very bored easily. When your teaching is reactive to learning, sometimes there’s a period where one is pedagogically “waiting for the water to boil”. Waiting for students to learn so I can teach is very challenging. I imagine it might also be challenging for other people. So here are some of things that I do instead in a flipped environment when I might have to spend 5-10 minutes not being the object of attention to get the most of the active learning environment.

  • Do informal assessment. Get out a pen, look around, and observe your students. What are they discussing? What is tripping them up the most? I find this helpful because I often forget as an expert all the things I do easily that my students might not be as good at. I try to use the extra time to assess student learning so I can see overall how the class is doing. I find recording this information makes it more functional to you in the future.
  • Observe inter-group dynamics. My students work with the same group all semester, and I really pay attention to how each of the group is working. Are all students working together, or in two pairs? Is there one student who seemed to be doing all the work and not letting the other students get involved? Is there a student who is on their phone and not helping? Alternately is there a student who might be struggling with the material and therefore left out of the group as they move forward on the assignment? Any of these dynamics might affect the performance of the group and are important to keep track of. Extra bonus is that this was something that you could never observe first hand before active learning; you just had to sort of guess what was happening in the groups or rely on accounts of different students. In class activities gives you a real chance to observe up close what is happening inside the group.
  • Learn student names. Our Blackboard has a feature called “Photo Roster” which allows you print out a picture of all your students. I use this as I quiz myself on their names. It’s a wonderful feeling when you can surprise a student by calling them by name in class. You can do that more often if you take the time learn the students’ names. If you don’t have photo roster, you can also use name tags. This also makes it easier to start associating names with faces, so that when students email you, you know which student is which. I have between 80 and 116 students each semester, so this can be a real help.
  • Prepare the next activity. The more you prep your activities, the faster you can get to them. Enough said.
  • Join in. It’s always good to join a group and actually do the activities that you devise, though I will say that you tend to be faster at them then your students. This does seem to be logical first step, but you also might freak them out a little depending on the activity. But sometimes you can learn new things about your activity and do more in-depth assessment. Or sometimes you can focus your participation in a group where a student might be struggling and help that student keep on task. Also you plan really fun activities, right?

The objective of this post isn’t to say you can’t lecture. Sometimes the best way to tell people is to tell them something all at the same time. Also, sometimes to create a good learning environment, there is some need for storytelling and theatrics. But I think I’ve learn a lot of things by shutting up and watching my student work, and I think this greatly improves the classroom for everyone involved.

Motown, Dubstep and Classical: Using Background Music in Class

Learning is a five senses experience. Playing music is an easy way of throwing sound around as if to say “This is who I am, this is the type of learning environment that I’m trying to create”. Moving around chairs takes time or setting up things, but just by playing music you can create an entirely different environment.

Background music can cause what is called cognitive arousal, which improves mood. Music has been previously explored in the information literacy classroom and has positive correlations between background music and student comfort, retention, and confidence. Music can also increase certain type of perception as documented in the famous Mozart effect. At the same time, listeners should not doubt the fact that they are multitasking and can in some cases harm cognitive performance on tasks.

I have many opinions on music that I play in class. I typically play music in the classroom as students arrive. I teach in an active learning environment, so there’s lots of small tasks, bringing things together, talked about what you should do in small group type of work. I do this firstly because it allows me to check the sound in the classroom.  I then play music often when the students are working on a project, I think it makes clear when one task ends and another begins.

When I first started teaching I used to play music I like. Since I am from Seattle, that is mostly Indie Rock from the early 2000s, but I found that this was kind of really depressing. Also it is surprisingly discouraging when students make fun of the music and it is music that you like. This is also why you should not play music from your childhood.

I switched to Pandora station with a Stevie Wonder seed. I have carefully cultivated this Pandora station for the majority of the rest of my teaching career. I like Motown because it’s almost always easy to listen to and always a little upbeat without being too sickly sweet. It makes good background music that perks you up just a little bit.

The link to that Pandora Station: https://www.pandora.com/station/972927259948434106

My students make fun of me using Pandora, and I can see that Spotify is probably a superior product, but I have so many year of cultivation for the Pandora station I don’t really feel like I can leave it. I mean, it needs me, you know?

I play dubstep/electronica in other people’s classes, or during freshmen orientation, when I was trying to create an environment that says “look guys there’s a different teacher up here today you can tell because I am playing Dubstep” My favorite song to play is Space Monkeys from the Fight Club Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrReKwwtdsM&t=204s Another professor I know played Linkin Park for similar reasons.

I have also found that my international students actually prefer to listen to classical music. I’ve seen studies that show that music without lyrics is actually better for studying because then your mind isn’t microtasking as much. This is especially true for international students, where playing a bunch of English language over everything else is likely to give a lot of cognitive challenges. I created another Pandora station, based on Lord of the Rings. I like it, but I also think it can get a little Overly Dramatic Let’s Go to Mordor, so I only play it when there’s like an extra special or important assignment.

Link to Lord of the Rings Station: https://www.pandora.com/station/2363995905025458874

More information:

Lifehacker- The Best Sounds for Getting Work Done: https://lifehacker.com/5365012/the-best-sounds-for-getting-work-done