Author Archives: Elizabeth

Reflections on a teaching conference

This week, the Chicago Center for Teaching held its annual two-day teaching conference designed to help graduate students learn to be effective teachers and TAs. Today’s plenary lecture was on “Teaching is not learning,” given by Jean-Luc Doumont, who works for a company that specializes in effective communication. The talk was a dynamic introduction to how to think as an instructor and how to create a learner-centered classroom, and I hope the new instructors found it helpful. I found that Jean-Luc provided some bon mots that are useful and/or thought-provoking, so I thought I would share them.

  •  “You can take care of the students, or you can take care of the material.”

facilitating vs lecturingWhat Jean-Luc meant by this is explained by a diagram he had in his slideshow. In it, he dichotomizes (perhaps too starkly) facilitating vs. lecturing, where lecturing is supposed to be the mode of transmission used when the content is most important – “I have to get through all this content!” The other side of the diagram is “facilitation,” or how you create an atmosphere and construct a course to facilitate student learning – “I have to get these students to learn!” A new instructor might not see the difference between those states – isn’t getting through all the content going to cause the students to learn it?? The answer is, well, probably not.  Not if you don’t think about the mode of transmission, and it’s very easy in your first class to focus almost exclusively on the material, rather than considering its reception (and absorption). Lecturing has its place as a pedagogical tool, Continue reading

Should we crowdfund archaeology? Regarding US Ambassador Heffern’s exhortation to develop archaeology & tourism in Armenia

In 2013, the United States Ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, gave a TedX talk in Yerevan about the wealth of archaeological remains just waiting to be excavated (and then conserved) in the modern Republic of Armenia. He argued that the vivid history in Armenia should be better known throughout the world, to bring development (i.e., tourist dollars and related construction projects) to Armenia, and also to heighten academic interest in its history, thereby also encouraging international collaboration.

To emphasize the value of bringing international attention to archaeology in Armenia, Ambassador Heffern pointed out a few somewhat recent finds from the caves near the town of Areni in Vayots Dzor, including the earliest known wine-making equipment and a remarkably well-preserved leather shoe that clocks in at 5,500 years old. He went on to discuss the wine-making equipment at length, because of its potential significance to development, as the region of Areni just happens to be the most famous Armenian region for wine production, suggesting marketing connections just waiting to be made.  Ambassador Heffern’s final exhortation to his audience was to look into the use of crowdfunding to help finance archaeological projects and conservation, and to promote the sites for education and tourism.

I am in such complete agreement with Ambassador Heffern’s main points that I have in fact spoken to audiences across the U.S. on numerous occasions about archaeology in Armenia, its origins, its history, and its current state.  In Armenia, if you walk through the countryside with one of the archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologist will point out a historic or archaeological site to your left; an artifact to the right; a series of memorials behind you; or ancient walls directly in front.  The landscape is dotted with reminders of the past, artifacts and constructions like those found in the Areni cave that tell a tale of very early times, up through material remains that teach us about the medieval period and beyond.  The very landscape tells a story, a complex story of different times and different people, and that captivating story—or really, stories—should indeed be better known.

I have even led a group of tourists through every part of the country, telling those stories of the past by providing a unique look at material excavated long ago as well as excavations that are currently ongoing. I led the tour to do exactly what Ambassador Heffern is calling for, to bring tourist money into the country while at the very same time educating people about the past directly under their feet.

And so, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the talk, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what impact crowdfunding might have on what is (and should remain) a social-scientific endeavor.  What happens if institutions like universities and organizations like the National Science Foundation are relieved of their responsibility to fund scientific projects like archaeology?  What happens if the model becomes, in fact, a business model?  Or even a privately-funded model?

I have other questions about the talk, such as why there was no mention of the many international collaborations already going on in Armenia, some of which have lasted for many years.  There was not even a mention of the teams at UCLA and University College Cork who work at Areni, although to be fair, Armenian archaeologists also hardly figured in the speech except to be seen in the photo at the Institute.  My point, however, is that collaborations and academic interest in Armenia already do exist; why not lend support to these projects, which already have the relationships and even infrastructure in place that will allow them to expand their efforts to illuminate the archaeology and history hiding in Armenia’s soil?

In the end, TedX talks are meant to be thought-provoking, not necessarily problem-solving. This talk certainly made me think, but largely, about the proposed solution to the problem of funding archaeological research, and about the problems that the solution might in turn raise.

Front cover of the American Journal of Archaeology!

The journal of the Archaeological Institute of America used to have a cover dominated by its adorable owl crest and the title, but it appears that they have changed the format to include a photo and more dynamic use of color.  And whose work is on the very first photo cover?  Yes, that would be mine:  http://www.ajaonline.org/nonsubscription The premier American classical archaeology journal chose to feature not Athens, nor Rome, not even Palmyra or Pergamum, but Tsaghkahovit’s Room WSI!  The link above will likely change when the new issue is released, so I’m including a (sadly pixellated) image of the cover here, too.  A better look at the room can be found here, and to read more about our work at Tsaghkahovit, you can go here to the Project ArAGATS website.

Photo: Tsaghkahovit Precinct A, WSI

Photo: Tsaghkahovit Precinct A, WSI

More on Eric Mazur and peer instruction

This is an interesting article about a visit Eric Mazur (he of “peer instruction,” which I discuss here) paid to Vanderbilt University, where the faculty had a chance to experience the “flipped classroom” themselves.  One of his key points is that when we consider how we instructors learned to teach, we almost never say that we acquired our knowledge of teaching by passively sitting through lectures, so why do we teach that way?  The article also links to a couple videos of Mazur in action.

http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2013/04/using-peer-instruction-to-flip-your-classroom-highlights-from-eric-mazurs-recent-visit/

Discussion leading: an art, regardless of whether you use it for science

Last spring, I did a short presentation (on Mazur’s peer instruction) for an event at the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and afterward, I was recruited to become a Teaching Consultant.  As a Teaching Consultant (TC), I am one of a handful of graduate students from across the university who have the opportunity to get together and read and talk about pedagogy.  We take the knowledge we glean to help other graduate students in their classrooms through workshops and individual consultations.  Yesterday, we met to have a discussion about discussions.

Put that way, the topic of conversation is somewhat amusing (especially when you consider that we tried out the technique of leaderless discussion, during which I had to stop the leaderless discussion to discuss how we were discussing – I think we almost drowned in the recursion).  Still, it was an interesting meeting, particularly the input from our TCs in the STEM fields.  At first blush, you might think that there is no opportunity for students to discuss in a discipline like computer science.  The TC described his class, and described the “discussions” as an opportunity for students to respond to questions and also ask for clarification.  In other words, the “discussions” were primarily led only at a level that might help the students to remember and understand their readings, but not achieve the higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains (i.e., application, analysis, evaluation, creation).   Continue reading

A treasure hunt, of sorts

I have not had much time to update the blog lately, but I was asked by the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago to contribute to their blog.  You can find the entry here: https://socialsciences.uchicago.edu/blog/student/treasure-hunt-sorts

More on pedagogy later this month!  I’ll be part of a panel on flexibility and adjustments in the classroom for the UChicago Workshop on Teaching in the College.  Details here: http://teaching.uchicago.edu/?workshops-and-seminars/workshop-on-teaching-in-the-college-2013.html

Taking comfort in discomfort

Hegel’s a problem.  Seriously—what kind of person writes like that??  So, when you’re about to help a roomful of kids work through the Philosophy of World History, what do you do?  It’s tempting to walk them through the arguments and concepts: philosophical history, Idea, world-spirit, reason… (Of course, it’s also tempting to tell them to look at the index, already.)  It’s tempting to feed them concepts and arguments, to draw the connections for them, because, come on—Hegel is hard.  The students don’t necessarily have the tools to cope with his arguments, to grasp the synthesis of ideal and real, subject and object, particular and universal. So what do you do? Continue reading

The Socratic Method, or, How to Avoid Drinking Hemlock

Reading my October book on pedagogy, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, has taught me a couple of important lessons:

1) Studies show the efficacy of some of the techniques I use while teaching, for example, breaking the students into smaller groups to teach each other the material.

2) Also, reading books about pedagogy doesn’t take as much time as I thought it would, since you can skip to the techniques you’re trying to work on and skip any you’ve got down.

I find it rather interesting that I can pick up a teaching book and, instead of reading it for an overarching argument, cherry-pick directly to the elements that speak to me.  (For example, I don’t really need the chapters on lecturing effectively—yet.)  So I did just that: I went through the book and cherry-picked to the material that’s important to the discussion-based classes I teach at the University of Chicago.

Since I’m trying to use this forum as a way to explore and improve my own teaching, this discussion will obviously be focused on my particular situation.  But I’m putting McKeachie’s 7 “biases or hypotheses” inset over here for general purposes, before I go on to discuss what I found most interesting.

The Socratic Method

I was looking for semi-concrete tips about leading discussion, but I ended up thinking mostly about discussion in general, and in particular, the Socratic method.  I quote McKeachie about the Socratic method:

In television, novels, and anecdotes about the first year of law school [Socratic teaching] is usually portrayed as a sadistic, anxiety-producing method of eliciting student stupidity, and even when I place myself in the role of the slave boy taught by Socrates in the Meno, I feel more like a pawn than an active learner. (2011:43)

Ouch.  McKeachie goes on to say that the questioning methods advocated by a student of the Socratic method, Allen Collins, “may be generally useful in leading discussions,” but it seems as though McKeachie is rather lukewarm on the method. Continue reading

Millennials: is it even possible to characterize an entire generation?

It’s interesting to me that my brother, Charlie Anderson, and I interact with the same generation, though in vastly different settings.  I get the millennials between 18 – 22 years old in the classroom, and he picks up where I left off, training them at his consulting company, Boom Lab.  I’ve wondered before just how accurate the pseudo-psychological characterizations of a whole generation could be, considering how many contexts there are for rearing the children of that generation.  (Are the sweeping generalizations supposed to be of the sort of middle-of-the-road, middle class, median group?  How “entitled” could the millennials raised in poorer environments really be?)  And in my experience, even with a segment of the population likely to be middle or upper class, there’s a wide range of attitudes, abilities, and aptitudes.

Charlie has clearly given a lot of thought to how this generation of new workers interact in the workplace, how to harness their particular skills, and maybe rein in certain tendencies.  Rather than a pseudopsychology of the millennials, he demonstrates how to evaluate people between 22-25 years old in the very real context of their jobs.  It’s an interesting read, thought-provoking and careful to avoid stereotypes:  http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/173282281.html

Knowledge, learning, and cognition, oh my: techniques for achieving better comprehension

It’s been a very long time since I wrote, but my experiments in teaching last year were pretty successful—my students took apart their texts pretty well, they definitely learned how to write better papers over the course of a couple quarters with me, and they really seemed to enjoy class.  My ego also survived multiple questionnaires, which were extremely helpful for understanding what techniques (the students thought) worked and what techniques did not.  More about what worked will come below.

But not only do I enjoy teaching, I enjoy learning about teaching.  This year, I didn’t get a job offer for autumn until it was too late to fit it in my schedule, and so to fill the pedagogical gap, I think I’ll start a new endeavor: I’ll read a book on pedagogy each month, and think about how to apply it to future classes.   (I may teach in winter or spring, so the application could be almost immediate!)

Today, I went to a seminar on course design, offered by the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  One of the most interesting things that came out of the seminar for me was unexpected and only tangentially related to the seminar’s focus on course design.  Last year, I read a book called Peer Instruction, by Eric Mazur, a physicist who discovered that, although his students tested well in his large intro courses, their retention and deep understanding of the material wasn’t strong.  He came up with a method whereby the students worked together in small groups to learn the material more comprehensively than by rote.  He found that this system was especially successful at getting them to understand the abstract concepts behind the particular examples and experiments he’d been showing them, which was key to their retention and ability to more generally apply principles of physics. Continue reading