Dean Griffin Day Luncheon for Thank a Teacher Recipients, and A Meditation on Teaching, Passion, and MOOCs

George C. Griffin, 1918

George C. Griffin, 1918

Today, the Georgia Tech Alumni Student Ambassadors and the Georgia Tech Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning hosted the Dean Griffin Day Luncheon to recognize recipients of “Thank a Teacher” notes. I was honored by a Thank a Teacher note from one of my students.

Associate Vice Provost for Learning Excellence Donna Llewellyn told us about the origins of the Thank a Teacher program and recited some of the notes that recipients had received.

Marilyn Somers, Director of Georgia Tech’s Living History Program, guided us through enjoyable multimedia-driven stories about Dean George C. Griffin. Her enthusiasm for Georgia Tech is only matched by her passion as a storyteller.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Colin Potts delivered a meditation on what exactly it is that makes a great teacher and how that relates to the modern development of online education in MOOCs (massive open online course). The two most provocative things that I took away from his talk include the question, “What makes a good teacher?,” and the observation, MOOCs are part of the evolution of education but not the end.

On my walk back to the Hall Building, I thought about Dr. Potts’ question: What makes a good teacher. Of course, I have given this idea a lot of thought before and after entering the profession, but it is a question that we as educators should continually return to in our work as reflective practitioners. The best quality that I have found in my teachers (and I mean those people who are educators in the broadest sense of the word) is passion. This includes a passion for the material being taught, a passion for student learning and success, a passion for engaging others, a passion for life-long learning, a passion for energetic discourse, a passion for understanding, a passion for a passion for giving back to a community, a passion for being a part of larger conversations beyond the classroom, and a passion for kindness. What’s intriguing about my experiences with some fantastic teachers during my life is that I do not believe that any of them perform, demonstrate, or conduct these same passions in the same way. There many different paths to these things, and its amazing to me how many different people tread very different paths yet have achieved for me the same positive and enriching outcomes.

This reminds me of something else that Dr. Potts warned about MOOCs–the impulse of some to promote a singular, superstar educator as the one way for a course to be delivered and taught. In a smaller way, I think back to my Calculus education at Georgia Tech. There were simply some professors who I could learn from–that is, their teaching style and methodology synced, jived, and meshed with my thinking and learning ability. The professors who I did learn Calculus best from might not have been the exemplars of the profession at Tech at that time, but they were, to me anyways, the best educators of Calculus (I should know, because I had some false starts early on in my educational career). We have to be very careful about the choices that we make as an institution and as a profession as we move further into offering MOOCs. These choices should extend beyond the calculus of student completion rates. We have to consider the effects MOOCs will have on pedagogy and educators. How will MOOCs, over time, influence education? How will MOOCs influence student success in areas not explicitly concerned with a course that teachers often provide and encourage (finding out how students are doing, having informal chats, making sure students are doing okay, etc.)? Will MOOCs push out some educators and educational styles in favor of others? Can the passions of educators be provided/conveyed and can the passions of students for learning, solving puzzles, and engaging discourses be fostered in a MOOC?

A final note: I am listening to Dr. Eric Rabkin’s lectures on tape for his Science Fiction: The Technological Imagination course from the University of Michigan. Certainly, he is passionate about science fiction, and it is, I believe, unavoidable for his passion to infect his audience. He knows the material, and he is obviously excited to convey this knowledge to his students (in the classroom and in the world–those of us listening to the lectures on tape). However, Dr. Rabkin cannot provide the same kinds of things as a teacher (educator, mentor, counselor, etc.) in a MOOC or lectures on tape that he can provide in a class of reasonable size (another issue). Don’t get me wrong–Dr. Rabkin is a fantastic person and I count him among my professional friends. However, there are limitations to what an educator can and cannot do in a MOOC or lectures on tape. For example, in his own highly popular MOOC, I imagine that he cannot read all of the comments or questions of every student (when I see Dr. Rabkin next, I will certainly ask him about how he compares his classroom and MOOC teaching). This is something possible when you have reasonable class enrollments and course loads (this leads into another area of concern about having too large of a class for a qualitative and composition oriented course–there is a point at which the teacher cannot provide the necessary and needed passion for all students. In which case, a too big of a class, too many classes, or a MOOC can become indistinguishable from the perspective of the educator). Of course, I can see that the objectives of the classroom learning environment compared to the MOOC/lectures on tape should be different. I am left wondering though if everyone who promotes MOOCs truly recognizes the different affordances of each without trying to make one into the other at the cost of each.

Writing Delayed, Reflection on High School Psychology

Today in our last class of Teaching College Writing, Brian held a workshop on teacher evaluation and responses to student writing.  While I was talking with Dave and Dale about our first round of exercises, I remembered how a poor evaluation of my own work in psychology during my senior year of high school.

In other classes, my teachers commented very positively about my writing, and my grades reflected my growing skill in written communication.  My Latin teacher, Magistra Metz, gave me kudos for a paper that I wrote on the Roman pecuniary system–not only on the substance, but on the way that I wrote it.  However, a particularly poor evaluation didn’t make me fully doubt my writing ability, but it did make me shut down in the classroom when I should have maintained my focus prior to going on to Georgia Tech.

In psychology class, the teacher (her name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t recall it right now–I can see her face and I remember where her room was on the side of the wing nearest the library) gave us a research paper assignment.  We had to research some aspect of psychology on our own and write at minimum a 5 page paper on that topic.  It’s important to remember that there was no Internet access when I was in high school–at best, you could search CD-ROM databases for information.  Though, I didn’t have any problem picking my topic.  Independently of class, I was reading Roger Penrose’s (he’s a well established and respected mathematician and theoretical physicist–more on wikipedia here) latest book, The Emperor’s New Mind (available on Google Books here).  His thoughts on the quantum hypothesis of human consciousness excited me.  It combined two fields that I still enjoy reading about–physics and neurophysiology.  I was so jazzed by the assignment’s possibilities that I began writing and citing with gusto.  Before I realized it, I had a 21 page paper on my hands–the longest essay that I had ever written.  I was beaming with pride when I gave it to my teacher for evaluation and grading.

A week or two passed, and she handed back our papers.  I got an A- for some spelling and grammatical errors.  At first, I was a little put off that she concentrated on grammar and spelling when the ideas were so much more significant and above the bar for a high school psychology class.  But what threw me for a loop was my seeing a cheerleader in the row next to me receiving a big “A+, Terrific Paper” on a four page pamphlet on sports psychology.  Even though I got a respectable grade, I believed that I deserved a higher grade for doing a greater amount of research, critical thinking, and writing than my peer.  I was so incensed that I didn’t talk to the teacher or participate in the class for the remainder of the semester.  This means that I didn’t take tests or hand in any more work.  I thought that if my teacher devalued my work in such a pedantic way, I didn’t have the energy or desire to give her the satisfaction of my attention and time.

This took place just prior to graduation.  I was warned by other faculty that I should do something to mitigate my eventual “F” in the course, because it would lower my class rank.  I told them I wasn’t that concerned about it–mathematically I knew I would be bumped down a slot and remain in the top five.

I don’t want this to happen in my classes.  I don’t want to shut down a student, because I focused on the wrong things in their papers.  Students are writers, and as writers, they have something to say, and it’s part of my job to listen to what that is.  By listening, I can help guide them to revising their work so that it’s even stronger, and in so doing, they become stronger writers.  The “tip of the iceberg” stuff (form) will follow the “under the surface stuff” (function).  Form follows function (Shuy will back me up on this).  And more importantly, I want students to own their work, be proud of it, and not stop writing.  Therefore, I have to do my best not to do something boneheaded that might shut them down or feel that they need to shutup.