Friday, June 10, 2011

holla back, humanities

This excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education offers a much-needed student's perspective on the importance of the humanities and, specifically, humanities majors. Often the justification for such programs and areas of study comes as a kind of top-down approach (profs to students). Nice change. I was particularly impressed with the way the students deconstructed the nature of questions like, "What are you going to do with that major?"--exhibiting in an appropriately meta-sort-of-way just what you can do with "that." Holla.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Anatomy of a Discussion

William Cowper, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies (1698)
Image source: Book Use, Book Theory exhibit
Recently, I was asked to share my thoughts on how I facilitate discussion. At first, I started rattling off tips and tricks, experiences and expectations, pitfalls and pet peeves. But the more I talked, the more I realized that I had never actually dissected (to keep my metaphor going here...) the inner workings of great classroom exchanges. I know this sort of thing has been done and re-done, but I thought I'd offer my view of the basic skeleton underlying classroom conversation (I know, I know...the anatomical language has now gone too far).

Side note: As an early modernist, I couldn't resist posting this image from the 17th-century anatomy theater. It plays on the source of knowledge--both body and book--and nicely contextualizes my own thinking about discussion. Or, at least I'd like to think so.

  • Give everyone a chance to "warm" their brains up, come up with some ideas, and get on the same page (not to mention remembering the text/homework if they came straight from an exam, lunch, etc.)
  • Try to get everyone to participate before the main conversation begins to build confidence & openness
  • Encourage evidence-based responses NOT opinion
  • Think Pair Share
  • Free Write (1-minute paper) with an advanced organizer handout
  • Respond with a word or phrase
  • 3 observations, 2 emotional responses, 1 question
  • Text to Self, Text to Text, Text to World
  • Have students generate their own discussion questions (alone, with partner, or in group)
  • Generate a Do/Don't list for Discussion Groundrules (do this on first or second class, ideally--or online)

  • Don't come with a hidden agenda or set of answers; come with goals & issues you'd like raised
  • Your job is to facilitate "aha" moments and prod students to think in new ways--not to teach them what to think
  • Avoid questions that have informational or yes/no answers
  • Use discussion questions that get at issues, problems, conflicts…not "answers" (students can see through you to your secret "agenda")
  • Have students answer discussion questions they came up with (night before or during warm-up)
  • Give a handout (or blog post) with possible questions for the day and let them choose

  • Try not to run discussion until the very, very end. Give time for at least a minute or two to come above water and make sense of it all.
  • Ask students: "What can we take away from today?" or "How has this discussion complicated or changed the ideas you cam to class with?" 
  • Ask students to reflect in a meta-way (as future teachers, especially): "What content/skills/strategies/tools/calls to action are you leaving with?"

Monday, January 4, 2010

New ways to teach old tricks

Grammar tips for visual learners?

It's all about the brain

The New York Times recently ran an article detailing what we (by we, I am especially referring to English professors, teachers and avid readers--book "lifers" -- or folks who just might wither into a tiny pulp without a few lines of prose to latch their minds onto) always already knew: the brain is a muscle. Ok, not a muscle really, but something that is certainly within our power to change in a way that makes psychosomatic take on a whole new meaning. It seems we can actually counteract the effects of aging by training our brains to forge dynamic new pathways. Translation: think differently and make new connections and your brain "lives" longer. In a word, brain gym.

What I find especially exciting about this article is that it gives new language to the value of education and life-long learning. At a time when liberal arts programs and the humanities in particular have come under fire for their detachment from specific pre-professional tracks, here we have another example of the countless ways in which analysis and critical thinking transform individual learners. Far from the lofty ideals of the ivory tower, discussions of literature, history, art, and religion have concrete, material payoff. They allow us to "try on" alternative points of view, to stretch neuropathways in new directions and solve new social problems. So, if the brain is a muscle--at least metaphorically--English classrooms might be likened to a kind of training camp, not for a solitary intellectual, "impractical" existence, but for life in all of its gritty, material realities. Train hard, go faster. Read books, think longer. Now if only Nike sponsored teachers...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

hello Dropbox...goodbye flash drive

If you're like me and wasted too many hours to count trying to devise clever systems for file storage to help you remember where you saved a file--work computer, laptop, home desktop, flash drive?--you will, like me, fall in love with Dropbox (props to Alex for spreading the word). Here's the short and sweet version of how it works: it syncs all of your computers to a single "dropbox" or file folder. No more freaking out at work because you left your notes at home or vice versa. For a better explanation, check out this video below from the technology "in plain English" series. Oh, and did I mention you get 2G of free storage space? Yeaaaah. Sign up. Now. Here. Do it!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Medieval Helpdesk

In a recent guest talk I did to prepare students at Notre Dame for a Rare Book Room visit, I was very tempted to play this classic of the YouTube book history clips (of which there are so many). I'm quite sure it would have been a runaway hit. Really, I am.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Last night in Besse 1

Things I'll miss about 'ye olde booke club':
1. Having a "buttery" bar in our hall
2. The satisfaction at cracking another layer of the Bodleian's cataloging system
3. Indecisive weather
4. Shakespeah
5. Battling for Muesli in the morning
6. Oblong books
7. Images "not for the faint at heart"
8. Lord Nuffield
9. 6:15 a.m. runs next to cows
10. Nightly potatoes

To Mark, Jim, John, Matt, Dennis, John, Kathleen, Lex, Rabia, Chris, Sue, Phil, Anne, Marlo, Tim, Lara, & Emily--cheers & happy travels home!