Reflecting on this past semester

On Tuesday this week, my campus held a conference on pedagogy, sponsored by our Center for Teaching & Learning. One of the sessions I went to was a panel presentation / roundtable discussion led by a few people who had participated in a book study group. They read and discussed bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress over the course of the semester. The conference was held the day after final grades were due for spring semester.

There was a lot of discussion about how to deal with being vulnerable in front of a classroom in order to transgress hierarchies and create a space where students could co-create knowledge. Also about how to build the trust needed for students to be willing to be vulnerable – whether that means sharing how a novel made one feel during a literature course, or just being willing to take a risk in answering a question when one isn’t sure it’s the “right” answer. Some of this came around to a discussion of experience and building confidence, on both the teachers’ and students’ parts. It ran for an hour, so it covered a lot more ground than I’m representing here, but those are the parts that really resonated with me.

This past semester was a bit rough for me. I’ve been trying to implement more feminist & critical pedagogical approaches in my teaching, both in how I teach and what I teach. I feel pretty good about the content. There’s always room to encourage more critical reflection, but that will come with time.

I teach a course called Information Literacy & Research, which covers how to evaluate sources, distinguish between scholarly and popular sources, find and access materials through library resources, and ethically create information, as well as discussing some of the “political, cultural, and social dimensions of information” (from one of the official course learning outcomes). I opened the semester with Why is my curriculum white?, and encouraged them to keep that in mind when they think about finding information in the library and about the perspectives they’ve been exposed to in classes. We moved from there to readings about critical thinking and ideologies, and so on… Probably more than a lot of students expected when they enrolled in this class! We did cover some boring ground – how to avoid plagiarizing, using the library databases to find sources, etc. But I feel better about this content this past semester than the previous semester, and look forward to just continual improvement instead of needing to totally rework things.

The part that was rough was trying to use a more feminist pedagogical approach to teaching. There was a stark difference between my two sections of the course, too. Things seemed to go ok in one section, but flop in the other. Small group discussions went fine in the earlier section, but even that often went awry in the afternoon section. And I wound up giving up on trying to get class discussions going. We only had 24 students per section, but it felt like pulling teeth to try to get them to talk in front of the whole class. So I wound up spending more time just basically lecturing than I would prefer. And some of them just seemed tuned out, no matter what I said or did.

So I ended the semester feeling a bit… frustrated. When I submitted grades, there were more Fs than any semester I recall – all to students who either plagiarized and/or who failed to turn in several assignments. I was especially frustrated by the plagiarism, because I give an assignment in which students must learn to identify plagiarism, and then discuss it in class. In addition, I talked about avoiding plagiarism on their papers in class. Yet around half of the class in my later section turned in papers with no references. I gave them an opportunity to revise, and yet several students did not bother to submit revisions (even just a new version that included their citations).

I’m really glad I went to that session at the conference, because it helped get all of this into a better perspective. I can work on doing more to try to build trust in hopes of getting students to be more willing to take the risk of engaging in class. But it’s not easy for them, especially if they haven’t been encouraged to take intellectual risks or talk in class much before.

But the other perspective shift I got from that conference session was in thinking about more than just the past couple of weeks of the semester. Since I’ve been trying, however imperfectly, to implement more critical pedagogical approaches into my teaching, I’ve had many more rewarding interactions with students.

I often envy my friends who teach in academic disciplines with degree programs, because they get to watch their majors grow and develop – sometimes over the course of the year if the student switches to that major late, but sometimes over the course of 2-3 years. They get to know the students and build relationships that are difficult to build in a single semester in a course that fills one of the core requirements, which students often take before they’re far enough along to even declare a major.

That hasn’t really changed, but as I have changed my approach to teaching, I have noticed a small shift. I now have former students who stop by to chat with me when they see me at the reference desk, instead of just walking by with a quick wave, or avoiding eye contact altogether. This semester, a current student came to my office to ask what could have been a 5 minute question about an an assignment, but spent close to an hour in my office gushing about the topic they were doing research on. More students came to talk to me outside of class than I think in any previous semester. Students opened up more about their own experiences in written assignments and outside of class than I remember from any previous semester. And reading back over this, I feel like it still sounds pretty limited compared to the way some of my friends get to know their students – part of that is my self-censorship, not wanting to say too much or say anything that could let anyone identify any particular student, and part of that is the constraint of having just a single class. But, building more of a relationship with just one or two students feels like an improvement over my experiences from before I started trying to use more critical pedagogical approaches.

Some of this definitely comes back around to experience and confidence. After the panelists gave their short presentations and opened the session to a roundtable discussion format, one of the participants brought up the risks of trying to use transgressive pedagogy as a contingent faculty member – something I don’t have to worry about. But even without that, when I first started teaching this class, it took a while to build the confidence to take risks. I still get a bit scared about how students will react when I call out white supremacy as an ideology that has influenced and continues to influence choices about which books/articles are even published, before we even get to which books faculty request libraries purchase or which books librarians select for their libraries. The more I raise that topic, the more confident I am in discussing it, but it’s scary at first!

This post is mostly rambling navel-gazing, but I guess that’s ok, since I don’t know that anyone else is reading! I think it’s important to spend some time reflecting on one’s teaching, and writing it out helps me in that process. For all of my frustrations, I feel better about my class than I have before. The next big area to work on will be learning how to build trust and confidence in students to get them to take more intellectual risks by contributing more to class discussions.

One thought on “Reflecting on this past semester

  1. What a great entry. I really enjoyed your reflections on students, learning and especially your course. Would you be willing to share your syllabus? It would give me some insight on changes I could make to my own credit bearing research class. If possible, please email it to me.
    Great job.

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