I’ve written some here before about the class I teach. This semester, though, I get to do something a little bit different. It’s still a 2 credit hour class that meets twice a week in 52 minute chunks, but I get to focus on information literacy through the lens of Ferguson with a small group of engaged students.
Anyone who follows me on twitter knows that, since August, I’ve been spending a big chunk of my free time following the protests in Ferguson and around the country (and retweeting updates, articles, etc). So when my boss asked if anyone would like to plan an honors section focusing on a specific issue for this spring, I jumped at the opportunity. I wound up with too few students for it to run as an honors section, but was able to change the restriction to “instructor approval required”. Both the honors distinction (requires honor student status OR a 3.2 gpa AND advisor override) and the instructor approval restrictions place barriers to students who may want to enroll. Initially, the reason for planning this as an honors section was to set this section apart as focusing on a specific topic and to indicate a higher level of inquiry than is found in some other sections. I tried to bring in some discussion of issues related to Ferguson (bias in media representation, the role of twitter as an information source, etc.) last semester, but worried each time I did about getting complaints from people who feel that they didn’t sign up for such discussions. Having some restriction on the course and the special topic in the class bulletin was a way to make sure people are signing up for that discussion. Once I removed the honors designation, I wanted a way to make sure that those who enroll for my section were signing up due to an interest in the topic, not just because it was the only section left with open seats. I don’t know if it was right or wrong to play gatekeeper like that, but it resulted in a class of only 10 students who are actively engaging in the class (so far at least!).
Classes started last week, Mon Jan 5. Yeah, super early! On Monday, I spent a big chunk of the class period going over the syllabus. There are arguments for and against this. Last semester, I left it to the students to read the syllabus on their own, and instead showed a short video, and then talked about what that has to do with the class. The reasoning behind that was to make the first day more engaging than just having the prof read the syllabus at them. This time, however, I wanted to call more attention to parts of the syllabus to make sure everyone there really was on board with what they had signed up for. I didn’t read the whole thing, but talked about the parts that I wanted to be sure they pay attention to.
After the review of the syllabus, though, the class was small enough to go around the room introducing ourselves. A grand total of 8 students were present that day – not everyone is in the class now, and some of those in the class now were not yet in the class last Monday. But I feel like that was even better for setting a good tone for the semester than what I did last fall.
The second day of class, Wed Jan 7, was less exciting. They’ll be required to maintain a blog, and will post their regular homework assignments there. So, we gave up a class period to setting up their blogs and making sure everyone knows how to add a new post. One of the lessons I’ve learned in teaching this class is just how ridiculous the “digital native” trope is – most of our students can surf the web, but get flustered when asked to create a blog on wordpress or create and share a google document for their first time. So if I want to use a new tool, I need to devote class time to making sure everyone knows how to use that tool, instead of assuming that “digital native” students can just figure it out.
The third day of class, Mon Jan 12, was when it started to get really cool. I assigned the introduction to Teaching to Transgress as a required reading for discussion on Monday. In class, I started the class period by having them write just a 1-2 sentence summary of the chapter and then speculate on why I asked them to read that chapter for class. We then spent 10 minutes or so discussing that. The key point I tried to highlight was the different approaches to education – the banking system of education that left hooks apathetic versus an approach that encourages them to get excited and acknowledges them as whole people instead of just names and id numbers.
I used that to segue into an exercise that I learned at the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning (ISETL) conference last October. I modified the exercise slightly, but it just asks for one’s name, citizenship, nationality, race, culture, and gender (Stephen Braye’s version had religion where I substituted race, but the rest is copied directly from him).
First, I gave them a couple of minutes to write their answers. During this time, one student asked what I meant by “culture”, and I told her that was part of the question there. Once almost everyone was done writing, I asked them to break up into pairs to discuss which was the easiest and which was the hardest to answer (again, copying the way it was done in the conference presentation). After about half of the groups looked like they had run out of things to say, I opened the discussion to a whole class discussion.
Predictably, they all seemed to agree that “name” was the easiest to answer. I thought about calling on one student who goes by a name other than what is on their official record or the student who just had a name change in the system, but didn’t want to put anyone on the spot… So instead, I brought up the fact that name isn’t so straightforward for me in this setting. Among peers, I’m Angela. When I participated in this activity at a professional conference, that seemed like a really easy one to answer. But as professor? Philosophically, I prefer to be Angela, even with my students. Pragmatically, in past classes, encouraging that level of informality seemed to correlate with students not taking the class seriously. So should I maintain that distance and make them call me “Professor Pashia” or should I have them call me Angela? The only response I got were some nods and some looks like “huh, I hadn’t thought about that”, so I just left the question hanging out there.
Everyone who spoke up agreed that “culture” was the most difficult to answer. One student mentioned listing “Southern US” because of where we’re located and because of not knowing what else to put. So we spent a good chunk of time talking about what factors go in to culture. Given that my academic background is in cultural anthropology, I had fun complicating that discussion! While some volunteered their responses as part of the discussion, we mostly just talked about what factors go into that category – region, nationality, parents’ ethnicity, region, socioeconomic class, etc. My goal was to make it comfortable for them to discuss their backgrounds if they want without forcing anyone to share more than they want to.
With just a few minutes left, I asked what they put for “race”. After one student explained their reasoning for preferring African American over black, and another agreed with that reasoning for listing themself as Caucasian, I asked if anyone has a different perspective on the terms. When no one did, I explained that I was curious because I’ve been reading stuff on twitter about the politics of the different labels, with some activists preferring to be labeled Black. Reading about those different perspective on twitter were what made me realize the need to ask what my students prefer.
That was an amazing class session.
For today, they read the definition of information literacy and the Authority is constructed & contextual and Information creation as a process frames (the descriptions, knowledge practices, and dispositions) from the latest draft of the Framework for Information Literacy. We discussed those in class and how they relate to the rest of what we’re doing in class. So today was not as amazing as Monday, but I still enjoyed being able to discuss it with such a small group of students who actually participate in class discussion.
Before getting in to the discussion today, I had them do a short writing exercise – write just a couple of sentences summarizing the reading. One student asked if they should also speculate on why I had them read this, like last time, and I said yes if you have time, but don’t stress if you’re still working on the summary. I set a timer for 4 minutes (started after everyone had paper and pen out), to make sure we had plenty of time for discussion. After they finished, before we got into the discussion, I asked them to speculate why I was having them do this writing. I was pleasantly surprised that the first response was something about getting this fresh in their minds. I said yeah, pretty much! While it serves as a check to make sure they did the reading, it also gives them time to get it fresh in their minds, and give people who need more time to think before speaking time to think about what they want to say, while those who don’t need that time can just write as much as they want in the time allowed!
I’m going to try to write more regularly here about how the class is going. I’ve said before that I was going to try to start posting once a week, and then fizzled out after just a couple of weeks, so we’ll see. But I’m really excited about this class and want to keep a journal of how it goes here.