Tuesday Teaching Topic: The Affect of Age Diversity in the Classroom

Today’s teaching topic discusses a topic that is perhaps easy to forget, but always has an affect. Some of our classes are occupied almost solely by 18-20 year olds. Some of our classes tend to have students aged 21 to 28 or so. Some of our classes have students who are older, more experienced, and wiser than we are ourselves.

In your experience, what affect does age have on your classroom? On your teaching style? Are there advantages to having age diversity, or older students, or only younger students? Do these situations provide any special obstacles to you teaching style?

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Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Disobedience

Last week, TTT raised the question of the motivation for teaching soft skills, whether we should teach soft skills, and if we should teach them, then how do professors at HWC teach them. As promised, this TTT is a continuation of that. And this begins with a proposal for consideration: insofar as it is the purpose of education to prepare students for citizenship, as well as employment, and insofar as a democratic state with rights of free speech for its citizens depends upon citizens to insert their views in the local and national discourse, and insofar as those in positions of power may be blind to the conditions of those with less power, it becomes a duty for all citizens in such a state to effectively wield disobedience.

The final element of this proposal: if skills like “dressing professionally” are considered badge-worthy soft skills because it helps a student’s employability, then skills like “disobedience” be considered soft skills because it helps a student’s citizenship.

This weeks question is concerned with teaching disobedience. What would be the motivation for teaching disobedience? Should we teach disobedience? How do we, or how should we, teach disobedience? How do we teach our students to recognize situations where disobedience is the proper tool. 

At first, this may sound like an odd question. Isn’t disobedience a bad quality? This is especially true if CCC’s primary mission involves preparing students for the workforce: if we teach students how to be disobedient, are we not undermining our primary mission? However, it does not take long to find important cases in both history and in our own lives to find examples of disobedience that we not only find acceptable, but even heroic and revolutionary. Nearly every political, religious, social, and otherwise ideological movement is based on heroes of disobedience: Anne Hutchinson, Malcolm X, and Charles Darwin, to pull just the smallest smattering from a legion. But we can agree they are heroes while still demanding obedience–either in our voice or in our hearts–from the subordinates we see and speak to on a daily basis.

But is disobedience a skill, or is it simply a choice? We may say that disobedience is simply an action that bold or rebellious individuals or groups engage in once they recognize injustice or frustrated by their situation. On the other hand, we may argue that effective disobedience begins with the proper recognition that the current situation is unjust and requires disobedience. And, like courage, it is one think to say to one’s self, “now is the time for disobedience,” and something quite different to confront authority and engage in disobedience. Like courage, the exercise of confronting adversity enables one to more capably confront it subsequently. This combination of the enhancement of the cognitive recognition plus the enhancement of one’s abilities through practice is the very definition of “skill:” something that can be enhanced through practice and education.

According to a few now infamous psychology experiments, human beings can be notoriously obedient when commanded by authority, even if ordered to do something that strikes them as obviously immoral. The experiments I linked to, the Steven Milgram shock experiment and the Philip Zombardo Stanford prison experiment, are examples of obedience where otherwise normal individuals willingly engage in harming other people.

Last week, I ran into a couple articles about a new experiment (the journal article is unfortunately behind a pay wall) that looked at why some people are obedient and others disobedient. The researcher, Matthew Hollander, was interested in the Milgram experiment and what was the difference between those who obey and disobey. Hollander observed that all participants attempted to disobey: they made the choice. However, only a minority were capable of disobeying. Disobedience, it seems, is not merely a choice, or else nearly everyone would have disobeyed.

Furthermore, Hollander believes his research supports the notion that effective disobedience can be improved through training. As one article states,

“If people could be trained to tap practices for resistance like those outlined in Hollander’s analysis, they may be better equipped to stand up to an illegal, unethical or inappropriate order from a superior. And not just in extreme situations, according to Maynard.

“‘It doesn’t have to be the Nazis or torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described in the recent U.S. Senate report,’ [Hollander] says. ‘Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive and even disobedient when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice.'” (Source)

And if we tend to be obedient in such explicit situations, how much more often are we obedient to authority where their commands much less obviously lead to injustices and malpractices? If a student is disobedient in a classroom, how do you, as the authority, determine if it was a meritorious form of disobedience, or to we all too often believe that “disobedience is good, but there is no good reason for someone to be disobedient in my classroom.” What would a student need to say or do to effectively practice disobedience then?

Tuesday Teaching Topic: Election Day Eve Edition

The actual Tuesday Teaching Topic will be up on Tuesday. 

Tomorrow is election day for the city of Chicago. Do you speak to your students about voting and citizenship? Do you consider part of our goal to help students become better citizens?

At my alma mater, Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota, our mission statement included the development of citizenship at both the local, global, and environmental levels. Currently, the mission statement reads:

“As northern Minnesota’s university, we engage in new worlds of thought, embrace responsible citizenship, and educate for a future that can only be imagined.” (Source)

I have no record of it, but I remember the mission statement as much more robust, including global and environmental citizenship.

One of my philosophy professors there introduced me to some of Thomas Jefferson’s writings on the importance of education for a democratic citizenship. To paraphrase, if we are to include the opinions of citizens in any portion of our government, we must ensure that our citizens are properly educated. Otherwise, we fall prey to the same issues that overtook the ancient democracies of cities like Athens: a rule of the uneducated means a rule of appetite and ignorance that will surely lead to mismanagement and anarchy. In Jefferson’s letters to John Adams and in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he argued that we need to introduce a publicly funded education for the sake of citizenship.

I have always taken this to heart: American education has its roots in developing good citizens. There were few who discussed public education’s role in developing workers or its importance in employability.

The City College’s own mission statement includes nothing directly about citizenship. One could see citizenship implied by “community service,” though as stated the virtue of community service is ultimately for a student’s individual success in a new environment:

“Through our seven colleges, we deliver exceptional learning opportunities and educational services for diverse student populations in Chicago.

“We enhance knowledge, understanding, skills, collaboration, community service and life-long learning by providing a broad range of quality, affordable courses, programs, and services to prepare students for success in a technologically advanced and increasingly interdependent global society.

“We work to eliminate barriers to employment and to address and overcome inequality of access and graduation in higher education.” (Source)

I accept that the world’s economy has changed dramatically in the 238 years since the USA’s inception, and that supporting the development of students’ job skills is a critical goal in our city’s and nation’s success. But this does not mean the importance of developing citizens has been usurped.

So again, do you speak to your students about voting and citizenship? Do you consider part of our goal to help students become better citizens? If so, how do you see your class contributing toward the virtue of citizenship? What would you want to see in other classes and from the institution as a whole?

Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Soft Skills

I almost posted a spicier question. But as I typed up the explanation, I realized that the setup was as discussion-worthy as the question itself, and it made more sense to deal with the setup question first. Tune in next week for what I hope to be a controversial question (hint: it has to do with a soft skill that is never discussed as a soft skill, because it has less to do with being a good employee, and more to do with being a good citizen). 

A couple years ago, we began hearing more and more talk about the importance of teaching “soft skills.” As I have heard the term used, it generally applies to character traits considered as skills, such as the oft discussed “grit,” or interpersonal skills. In short, they are a set of skills that are important for the development of individuals that are not traditionally taught in the classroom, but that are expected of students and employees.

I take it the motivation for teaching soft skills was the recognition that many of our students lacked soft skills, and that even if they were bright, they may not be “moving” in the way. Traditionally, soft skills are merely expected of people, without any training. They are “common sense,” and a bright but unruly student might be told to “get with the program” if they lack soft skills. If a person possesses strong soft skills, that individual is much more likely to know how to present themselves, organize their life in a productive manner, how to conduct themselves in an interview, how to articulate their speech, etc, etc. An employer who meets a candidate with excellent social skills might want to hire the person within the first few moments of meeting, before even reviewing the candidates credentials. On the other hand, even a candidate with excellent credentials might miss many opportunities if they lack social skills.

Perhaps the reason that it is so important to teach soft skills in the community college revolves around a class issue: students from educated, middle-class families often teach these to their children, and many four-year schools are populated with such students. This education may not be intentional: simply having a child surrounded by such environments is enough to teach many children how to behave well. Many of our faculty and employers come from institutions where this is the norm, and we therefore adopt the expectation that this is how people should behave. But if we recognize these character traits as a skill, then we recognize that this is something that is taught, and that many of our first-generation students from working class families were not often taught these skills. They don’t behave how we expect them to, and they are shut out of the education process because of this.

This week’s questions are these: What do you think of teaching soft skills? What do you do to teach or instill soft skills? Do you believe that the premise for teaching social skills is perhaps a false or problematic one?

Tuesday Teaching Talk: Teaching “Disinterestedness”

Last Tuesday, CAST hosted a seminar discussion ostensibly centered around a short and light essay titled, “The Uncoolness of Good Teachers,” by Mark Edmunton. We had six participants and a lively discussion that ranged over a number of interesting pedagogical issues. The conversation gave me a lot of ideas for a TTT topic, so we’ll work through a few of them in the coming weeks. For starters, we’ll take one inspired from our esteemed colleagues Judd Renken, who teaches rhetoric, speech, and philosophy, and Carrie Nepstad, who teaches childhood development and chairs our illustrious Assessment Committee.

Without further ado, here is our TTT question:

What is the importance of teaching “disinterestedness” in the classroom? Disinterestedness is a stance that is often touted as essential in being a careful and objective thinker and scholar. Many of our own professors may have criticized our undergrad paper if we demonstrated too much bias or enthusiasm for one position or another.

But to what extent is this actually possible? If it is not possible, is the requirement for disinterestedness in our students’ assignments a harmful deception? Is it a miseducation? If a graduate walks out into the world and believes they are capable of taking a disinterested stance when in fact they cannot, is it harmful for them as a thinker?

Even if disinterestedness is impossible to achieve, is it perhaps an important stance to strive to obtain in our own thinking and writing? As democratic citizens, for which willful advocacy of a particular stance is important, is it possible that too much disinterestedness is harmful?

Tuesday Teaching Talk (Thursday Edition)

Years ago, Chris Sabino as CAST director and Dave Richardson as Harold Lounge curator hosted the “Tuesday Teaching Talk,” or “TTT,” on the Harold Lounge. Now, CAST wants to resume this practice. We’ll get it back to Tuesday soon enough. 

“Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call counterintuitive, but to the teacher means simply being honest.”  -Mark Edmundson, “The Uncoolness of Good Teachers,” in Why Teach?

What do you do in the classroom that is weird, creative, risks making you look silly, but is all done in service of a lesson for your students? Is it ever a good idea to risk a professional bearing in the service of education? What strange things do you do between your four walls?

As HW faculty have seen in their e-mails, CAST is beginning a series of seminars aimed at fostering a good conversation about teaching, learning, thinking, and sharing what relevant disciplinary knowledge we have to our fellow faculty from across the disciplines. If you are interested in participating, join us this Tuesday, February 3rd, 3:30pm to 4:30pm in room 1046 at HW.

The temporary return of Tuesday Teaching Talk

I figured that it would be apropos to throw in a final Tuesday Teaching Talk as I exit as CAST coordinator (Also, I was having trouble looking at the standings in the football pool given mathissexy’s disappointing performance).  A few years ago, CAST was tasked with the responsibility of maintaining this regular Tuesday post.  Due to lacking popularity, and really everything else we were doing, we let it slip away.  Here’s one last one for nostalgia’s sake.  Also, if you’re around this afternoon (2ish in 1046), you can meet your new coordinators and have some cookies and pears, while discussing the following.

  • How do you stay sane while grading the last exams?  Do you have final assignments in your classes?  Do they happen this week or did they occur previously?  Do you provide students feedback on them, despite their somewhat summative nature?
  • Do you have a special way of ending your courses?  What was one success this semester?  What was on struggle?
  • What (if anything) do you plan to tweak/change for the spring semester?

I’d love to hear from some of you as you procrastinate in grading your exams, projects, portfolios and papers.  After all, according to some anonymous source(s), we faculty can be lazy.  See you later.  It’s been fun.