Teaching Tuesday (on a Wednesday): Trust the Process

In past years I’ve blogged pretty regularly about my experiences teaching in History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s Scale-Up classroom. This is my fifth time teaching in this room on Tuesday nights to about 150 students per semester. I’m not sure whether or when I’ll be back teaching in this room in the future. Changes in our graduate program will likely limit the pool of graduate teaching assistants which are vital to making this room work at scale.

For those unfamiliar with how a Scale-Up room works, it consists of 20, round, 9-student tables with three laptops each, large flatscreen monitors, and dry-erase boards. My class focuses on student writing with each table responsible for a section of a textbook chapter. Each table has an array of textbooks and can use the web for both primary sources and additional information. In a sense, my class is 15-20 separate seminars guided by myself and my graduate teaching assistants who primarily focus on issues of writing and organization as well as the mechanics of getting a group of nine students to work together.  

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things by teaching in this classroom (despite a less than successful effort to get some of my experiences published a few years back). Here are three of them:

1. Patience. At its core, my class is about writing. The course starts with three short paper which tables work together to design and students then submit as individuals. The final two-thirds of the class is dedicated to each group producing three, longer (2500-3000 word) chapters of a textbook. Each chapter gets comments on an outline, a rough draft, and even the provisional final draft which can be revised in limited ways at the end of the semester. Invariably the first chapter, typically dedicated to some aspect of Greek history, is rough. The outlines are rough, the rough draft is rough, and the final draft can be awkward and uneven. By the final chapter, some 9 weeks later, however, the outlines are better, the rough drafts are good, and a few of the final chapters are quite excellent.

The regular, incremental improvement in student work is rarely acknowledged in conversations with that tables. In other words, they rarely “close the loop” explicitly by telling me what they’re doing better with a particular draft or outline, but their work does improve steadily over the course of the semester. This used to frustrate me because there has been so much emphasis on making learning explicit, but in this class, I wonder whether it is more telling that the students aren’t entirely conscious of how they’ve improved. Being patient, trusting the process, and not forcing things seems to make learning happen.

2. Conversation. Last night, I had about 65 of the 90 students in attendance. It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and many of my students head home early this week. While this is a bit annoying, UND doesn’t have a fall break and only has Thursday and Friday off for the holiday, so I’m inclined to be sympathetic. 

One benefit of the smaller class and a general attitude of holiday good cheer is that I was able to float around the room and chat with students about their holiday plans, their semester, and the class. While this was not strictly speaking relevant to their task at hand, students seem to genuinely appreciate my interest. More importantly, at least from an institutional and pedagogical standpoint, this kind of interaction builds trust, encourages retention, and, on the classroom level, makes students more susceptible to encouragement, critique, and open conversation about the learning process.

This reminded me that one of the key advantages of the Scale-Up room is that it allows for more informal interaction with students and if learning in the Scale-Up room is all about the process, then the process is grounded in a trust that comes from familiarity.

3. Content and Freedom. My greatest discomfort in the Scale-Up room is that I basically allow my students to control the content from which they build their arguments. This means being tolerant of less than idea sources, questionable interpretations, and imaginative and unexpected points of emphasis. At first, I tried to control the sources of information that the students could mine for their arguments, but this is rather like hugging a wave. 

As a result, I’ve gradually shifted my attention from controlling access to “good evidence,” but now need to step up my efforts at managing how students critically evaluate the vast quantity of data available on the web. For a 100-level history class focused on producing good arguments, this involves shifting emphasis from producing a walled garden or allowing uncritical free-range scavenging for information, to  structuring critical engagement with available sources of historical information. That’s a big task, and one that’ll have to wait until when and if I teach the class again.

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