Blogging through Blocks

It’s been roughly one year since I started blogging (http://fallingintojudaism.blogspot.ca/) and I’m still trying to figure out how to best balance my time in order to enjoy some of my non-thesis activities. Given that I can barely find time to focus on my writing, I subconsciously made the ‘executive call’ to give up my side projects. In fact, everything I wanted to do on the side has now fallen by the wayside.

Last week I discovered a blog (http://www.bloggingbeyondtheclassroom.org/?p=421) about PhD Blogging and it got me thinking about professionalization and my future. I don’t need to blog regularly and I certainly don’t have to publish anything overly polished. But I really do need a space where I can think about my daily experiences – not necessarily a livejournal – in relation to my future as an academic scholar. After attending a Teaching Support Centre workshop on teaching philosophy statements and teaching dossiers, I thought it might be a good idea to use this wordpress as the site where I will eventually place said documents in order to market myself to the outside world. I also think, along the lines of Dr. Kim Solga (http://theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com/) that blogging about my teaching experiences wouldn’t hurt either.

Over the last few years, I’ve started incorporating social media into my Teaching Assistantships. Initially, my intention in using Twitter for the Jane Austen course I TA’d for (www.twitter.com/JaneAustenTA) was to demonstrate to my students that Austen is just as relevant today as she was more than 200 years ago. I wanted to impart my love for Austen in a fun and entertaining way, but I never gave much thought about how exactly the Twitter account was affecting the classroom dynamic. Based on my teaching evaluations, students stressed that the account was a real ‘hit’ and I made the decision that I would continue to use social media in whatever way I could.

That was two years ago.

Last year, I TA’d for Dr. Matthew Rowlinson (my thesis supervisor) for Nineteenth Century Literature. As the course was my area, I was also, like the Austen course, particularly passionate about the material. I created a Twitter (www.twitter.com/elementarymy19C) as well as a tumblr (http://elementarymy19c.tumblr.com/) account for the course. This time around, I chose to create the accounts to supplement the lecture material. I put way too much effort into my entries and, on the whole, it really wasn’t worth it as only a fifth of the students (about 50 in the class) read the posts I made. My desire to use social media stemmed out of the fact that I noticed many students didn’t actually read the primary texts. The tumblr posts were a way for students to at least know some important information about the texts, particularly plot and themes, so that they could at least have something to work with while listening to class lectures. Even with the accounts, I noticed that class discussion was stifled and no one seemed overly inspired by the content. By the end of the year (it was a full year course), I knew that the course’s lecture style was not something I ever wanted to do when I eventually found a job.

But what other options were there besides lecturing?

Since my time as an undergraduate student back at Queen’s University, most of my classes were structured in that style. Yes there was somewhat of a question/answer dynamic, perhaps even some in-class writing exercises (only ever happened to me in first year), but on the whole, I was expected to sit there and listen to what the professor had to say. In fact, when there was class discussion, I rarely ever wrote down what other students were saying and even found myself getting annoyed because I wasn’t paying good money to listen to amateurs talk about the material (perhaps my own students feel that way about me when I lecture – heh) – I was there to learn from the professor.

But what if the professor wasn’t saying anything of particular value?

I’ve been in a classroom environment as a student my entire life. As a teaching assistant, it’s been about five years. I’ve witnessed my fair share of, shall we say, ineffective teachers.

One of my biggest fears is that I might become like one of those teachers.

Thankfully, as luck would have it, I am now TAing for Dr. Solga. She has thrown everything I ever knew about teaching out the window and then some. And for that I am truly grateful.

Coming to class and witnessing my students constantly on their toes has been incredibly refreshing. Students write, on average, for about 2-5 minutes each class, either in response to a question or work through some of their own ideas. As I mentioned, the last time I’d ever seen active, on-the-spot writing was during my first year, a class taught by then-instructor Jennifer Esmail (http://floatingacademy.wordpress.com/bios/jennifer-esmail/) (who also happened to go to my high school and did her MA at Western like me). I remember these writing exercises very clearly because they allowed me the opportunity to reflect on what I was learning in the class. Some of my students mentioned to me that they don’t particularly like having to write on the spot. My first reaction was to sympathize and make a note of it for future use, but upon further reflection I suddenly thought “Who cares?”

I don’t mean “Who cares?” as in I am dismissing the student’s feelings. What I mean is that the student should be uncomfortable. They should feel somewhat pressured to produce and perform on the spot. It’s not as if either Dr. Solga or I even look at the things they write down. It’s not about putting together something polished in those two minutes. It’s about forcing students to think critically about what they’re being asked and learning how to respond to it in a critical way.

I’m glad students are being pushed out of their comfort zones. If more teachers were like this, we’d see a surge in independent, critical thinking that previous generation of students were actually achieving since they weren’t focused on – I’m sorry to say – the internet, television, movies etc. Students can’t function without looking at Facebook every five minutes, nor can they listen to lectures that are more than 10 minutes without getting distracted.

I myself am guilty of this from time to time. I am sure everyone has experienced similar difficulties in their academic careers.

Years ago my response to this would have been to blame society for condemning students to the current state they’re in. Many have lost the ability to enjoy learning because they just don’t know how to learn.

Changing the classroom dynamic to potentially suit their environmental upbringings is not a cop out. Just because students can’t focus on a 3-hour lecture straight out of the academic world of the pre-90s doesn’t mean they should. 

I’m now of the opinion that there was something seriously wrong with the education system back then (even if it did happen to produce some of the most brilliant academic scholars of the time).

We need to find a way to make learning fun, even if it goes against our stodgy, old-world academic sensibilities.

By fun, I don’t mean movies (because those can be equally as boring), nor do I necessarily mean fancy technology (because that can get overly complicated and potentially problematic). What I’m talking about, simply, is waking students up.

They’ve been in a coma for a long, long time. Teachers have been lecturing at them and telling them what to think for as long as they (and I) can remember.

It’s time we taught them how to think so that way they eventually start doing it on their own.

And that way us graduate students can stop feeling so bitter and angry come essay season.

You may think everything I’ve said is a bit unrealistic, but I’ve seen this happening twice a week since the beginning of the semester.

Believe me. It’s possible.

~MB

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About Madison Bettle

English PhD Candidate working towards a career in the academic world. I love Austen, Rand, and Meatloaf (the band).
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