Reinvigorate Those Course Requirements

Stephen Cushman, Robert C. Taylor Professor and Cavaliers’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, shares his experiences engaging students with an experimental course project.

What do teachers want? We want to feel excited by our courses, and we want our students to feel that way, too. Even more, we want to feel, and we want them to feel, excited by all aspects of our courses, not just the lively lecture or the animated discussion. And we want to be excited by the production and evaluation of the work we require. During the spring of 2015 I tried an experiment that succeeded in sparking this excitement, both for me and for the students.

The etymology of “student,” through its Latin ancestry, is “to be eager.” In turn, the Latin descends from an Indo-European root suggesting “to be pressing forward.” We want our students eager; we want them pressing forward. Meanwhile, the Indo-European root of “teacher” implies showing, and its descendants include the word Latin digitus, meaning “finger,” or that which one uses to point or indicate. A teacher’s job is to show, to point. In the best of all possible pedagogical worlds, the teacher points the way for the eager student to press forward.

How wonderfully simple. And yet how hard. A teacher can point at a bird or an airplane, and the student can be eager to press forward and fly, but the combination does not guarantee liftoff. What should a teacher show a student in order to generate and make the best use of that student’s eagerness? In many cases teachers who manage to show students their own eagerness to press forward will have accomplished a great deal, and many of their students will respond by celebrating their teachers’ “enthusiasm” (a powerful word that originally meant “having a god within”) on course evaluations.

But while a teacher’s enthusiasm can make a class livelier or more fun, it cannot, by itself, guarantee eagerness in a student. We often modify enthusiasm with the adjective “infectious” or “contagious” and, in doing so, reveal our hope that somehow enthusiasm will spread itself spontaneously; yet for all kinds of reasons there will always be students who do not share in a general susceptibility to a particular teacher’s enthusiasm and remain immune to it.

One hard truth about teaching is that it cannot work without some initial eagerness on the student’s part, and a second hard truth about teaching is that no teacher’s eagerness is inexhaustible; it depends at some level on the student’s eagerness to press forward toward what the teacher is pointing out. Some teachers will depend on their students’ eagerness more than others, but no teacher is wholly free of the dependency.

So the question becomes, What can a teacher do to enhance or magnify a student’s initial eagerness so that the student’s enhanced or magnified eagerness will in turn keep the teacher eager to press forward toward showing the student more effectively what there is to show?

The search for an answer to this question led to an experiment during the spring of 2015 in ENSP 4800, a major-level English department seminar bearing the plain title “The Bible.” Here is the course description: “The goal of this course is simple: to sample a range of stories and poems in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, so that readers and writers of English can recognize and appreciate allusions to them or echoes of them in other contexts, whether artistic or not.  No prior knowledge of the Bible needed or assumed.  All are welcome, as are all points of view, religious and secular. Participants may choose to submit analytic work or creative work.”

There are several experiments implicit in this description, such as the experiment of reading the Bible as the source for so much that circulates around us every day, rather than reading it “as literature,” an overly familiar qualification that will sound to many ears as though somehow the Bible is being discounted and pigeonholed safely next to novels and other works of the imagination we seek for distraction in the luxury of our leisure moments. But the experiment that concerns us here is the one to which the final sentence points: “Participants may choose to submit analytic or creative work.”

Let us be frank. Anyone who reads student writing for more than three decades is quite likely to find his or her eagerness to read more of it in need of replenishment, especially when the eagerness of students to churn out yet one more example of the standard critical essay is also in need of replenishment. For every student who can write a standard-template essay that makes a teacher feel as though the top of his or her head had been taken off, there are many more students for whom cranking out the familiar product has become stale, soulless drudgery wholly disconnected from anything vital and nourishing in the rest of the student’s life. For these students and their teachers, the production and evaluation of required writing is a lose-lose situation.

But what if the teacher gave students every chance to follow the leads of their initial eagerness? The assumption here is that a student at the University of Virginia who enrolls in an upper-level elective will have some minimal eagerness to do so, and the assumption feels like a reasonably safe one. Presumably, that initial, minimal eagerness will exist in a student who also has other interests, some of which will tend more or less in a critical or analytic direction, some of which will tend more or less in a creative one. A second assumption is that encouraging a student to connect any one of these other interests with work for a course will enhance and magnify that student’s initial, minimal eagerness. This assumption also feels reasonably safe.

So the experiment was to throw wide open the requirements of ENSP 4800, according to guidelines on the syllabus, which appear at the end here. The guidelines encouraged students to do whatever they were most eager to do. Out of seventeen, three chose to turn in conventional critical essays (one wrote a 20-pager, one two 10-pagers, one four 5-pagers); three turned in fiction or poetry or both; three turned in both a conventional critical essay and pieces of fiction; one devoted a blog to writing about the Bible; a student in the Curry School developed lessons plans for teaching the Bible to high school students; one student, a DJ, produced two CD mixes based on books of the Bible, along with liner notes for each song chosen; three students turned in works of visual art; one student composed songs, accompanied by guitar, and recorded them; one student developed a web site devoted to images and discussion of four women in the Bible. Proud of their own work and curious about the work of their classmates, the students pushed to turn the final meeting of the semester into a session during which they could exhibit, read, perform, or describe what they had done.

The point of the guidelines was to encourage rigor in the midst of freedom and some kind of common understanding in the midst of diversity. The experiment showed that the students who did the most impressive work, in whatever genre or medium they chose, were those who also chose to demonstrate the link between their work and the reading for the course by producing some kind of summary written statement about that reading at the end of the semester. The “tip” that now appears in section two of the guidelines resulted from this observation. In addition, I have added language about grading that puts in writing things I said to the students in class. Otherwise, the language is from the original syllabus, offered here for others to consider and use in whatever ways they please.

Excerpts from Syllabus

Your Work for the Course

The flexibility here is large, the possibilities great.  You may elect to submit analytic work, creative work, or a combination.  There is nothing wrong with choosing to submit conventional papers of the kind you are used to writing.  You are also free to submit poems, short stories, personal essays, as well as other kinds of creative work.  Digital projects are also fine.

A few guidelines to help you work with so much freedom.

  1. Due by [a date two weeks into the semester] in hard copy at the beginning of class: a proposal for work you would like to do, including dates for its submission and what parts of it you would like graded.  These dates become your deadlines, and work that comes in after the deadlines will be penalized for lateness. The proposal becomes binding once I have reviewed it, made suggestions for you to incorporate, and returned it to you. Please include in your proposal a statement for how you would like to be evaluated. You may elect to receive grades on each piece of work you submit; you may elect to receive one grade at the end of the course; you may elect to have some things graded and some ungraded; you may specify how much weight you would like one thing to receive relative to another. You may also specify what you would like to me to focus on, e.g., “I’m really trying to improve my sentences, so please focus on grammar and syntax,” or “I’ve been told my writing is disorganized, so please focus on structure and organization,” or “I’ve always wanted to try writing fiction (or composing music or painting a painting), so please focus on how well my creative work conveys a serious and sustained engagement with what we’re reading for the course.”
  2. In all cases the burden of proof is on you.  If you elect, say, to choreograph a dance piece inspired by a section of the Bible, it is up to you to make clear in some way that you have done the reading for the course.  You might submit a reading journal in addition to video footage of the dance piece; you might submit an informal prose statement describing your reading and how it inspired you; you might elect to have an extended question-and-answer session with me or with other students in which you talk about your reading.  In all cases the question I will be asking is, Could you have produced this piece of work without taking this course?  If the answer is yes, then the piece of work will not be successful in this context.  Again, it is up to you to show the link between the work and the course.  Tip: People who have done the best in this course have included some sort of written summary statement about their reading both in the Bible itself and in the essays at the end of our edition.  The statement can be an informal one.
  3. Degree of difficulty will figure in the final assessment of your work.  For example, if you elect to submit a single haiku for the semester, it is unlikely that the quality of the haiku, no matter how high, will offset the easiness of producing only seventeen syllables in fourteen weeks.
  4. Be wise in scheduling. Don’t put off everything until the end of the semester, when the weather will be fine and you will be stricken with spring fever [or when the days will be cold and dark at 5 p.m. and you will have a terrible cold and be anxious about getting home for the holidays]. Turn in something early in the semester, before other obligations flood you.

Class Preparation, Attendance, and Participation

NO LAPTOPS OR PHONES IN CLASS, PLEASE.   Attendance is required, and your eager presence is the factor most likely to make this course succeed. Two absences allowed, no questions asked, no excuses wanted. Each absence over two will lower final grade by one-third. Lateness is discourteous to all. Please avoid it. Portions of class time missed will be counted toward absences, e.g., if you miss the first thirds of three classes, you have missed an entire class.   Spirited class participation is expected, and its scarcity or absence will affect a final grade. At the beginning of each class someone will be chosen by lot to start the conversation. Come to each class as though you knew you were the one to be chosen. Be ready to point to a particular word, phrase, verse, or passage (have the page number at hand) and have something in mind to say about it, a statement, a question, an attraction, a repulsion.

 

Supporting Students in Distressing Times

Nine faculty members share their stories on how they have responded to the crises of the 2014-15 academic year. The intention of this collection is to make visible and learn from the wide varieties of ways in which instructors have supported individual students, nurtured a sense of classroom community, and fostered departmental learning. The stories also help us understand some of the challenges and barriers to acknowledging or responding to distressing events in the context of the classroom.  If you have a story to tell, please email us at trc-uva@virginia.edu.

For excellent suggestions on how to support students in distressing times see Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPs) guide “How Faculty Can Help.

From Rip Verkerke, Professor of Law

I always try to connect with students about matters that might concern them. That effort often involves offhand comments about current events or about the performance of prominent sports teams or the behavior public figures. But we didn’t spend any class time on the Rolling Stone controversy, and I wasn’t teaching in the fall semester when the Hannah Graham tragedy unfolded.

I’ve had conversations with individuals and small groups of students about the apparent pattern of overly aggressive behavior by ABC agents in Charlottesville. I also made a few jokes in class this spring about the fact that University alcohol policies have largely shut down a longstanding Thursday Afternoon Social at the Law School that included a keg. But again these comments and efforts to connect with student concerns don’t really rise to the level of a concerted effort to address students’ distress.

My decision not to raise these issues more systematically in class probably rests on a largely unconscious judgment that, in order to warrant class time, events should be either directly relevant to the subject of the class or so intrusive as to demand immediate attention (active protests, physical or emotional disruption of students’ attention to the class, or a national tragedy unfolding during class time). Finally, I think law students here feel at least somewhat insulated from some of the issues that arise among undergraduates on Central Grounds. I know that they care deeply about the issues addressed in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article. But those concerns are far less likely to be a part of students’ conversations immediately before and after class than they undoubtedly were in the College. It is often those informal comments that prompt me to engage students in further discussion.

 From China Scherz, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

I’m sure that many professors have different strategies but the things that worked best for me this time around were:

  • sending an email prior to class letting people know that we’d be talking about the incident
  • being willing to take a position on the incident. Many of my African American students were concerned that other professors had tried to create such an open discussion that they inadvertently supported the opinions of a minority of white students that the beating was not the result of racial bias.
  • opening by asking them to tell me what was going on, what had happened at the rally the night before, and what they thought faculty could do to support them
  • putting a small package of tissues in my bag before I left for class. No one cried, but I felt less afraid of possible tears knowing that no one would be blowing their nose into a post-it note.
  • spending some time reading the available media on the incident.

I was actually terrified walking into the classroom that day, but the tremendous response from the students, many of whom sought me out after class and in office hours to thank me for devoting class time to the issue, made it clear that it was well worth the effort.

 From Marva Barnett, Founding Director, Teaching Resource Center and Professor, Department of Drama

Before class a few days after The Rolling Stone article appeared, one of my fourth-year students, a guy, quietly said to me, “It would be great if we could talk about The Rolling Stone article, especially since so many of the issues connected to it are central to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables” (the course topic).

He was right, and I appreciated how he had immediately connected the novel’s real-life relevance to our world. It was also worth noting, I thought, that this student was someone who didn’t speak up very much in class, thoughtful as his written work showed him to be.

I welcomed his suggestion but wasn’t ready to tackle the issue of sexual assault and its emotion without thinking about it. Fifteen minutes on the phone with UVA Counseling Center’s Andrea Iglesias helped me launch and manage such a conversation with 40 students. The connection to the course’s subject matter helped, but it would have been fine to have the conversation simply as a recognition of the stress and emotional roller-coaster rides that students have survived throughout this year’s events.

Andrea’s suggestions helped me frame the conversation:

  • I told students at the beginning of the next class that one of them had proposed the conversation, and that I thought it was a great idea.
  • That we would save the last 30 minutes of class to talk about it.
  • That anyone could leave at any time, with no effect on grades.
  • That the discussion might provoke unexpected feelings or reactions, and that anyone was free to take a break, get a drink of water, walk outside, write about how you’re feeling, and come back or leave at any time.
  • I wrote the CAPS 24/7 phone number (434-972-7004) on the board.

And I used these pedagogical practices:

  • I gave the students individual thought time and posed a specific question: “Take 3-4 minutes to think about the themes and issues Hugo presents in his novel and what connections you see with any of the issues raised by the Rolling Stone article.”
  • I reminded them of the respectful attitude and tone we had taken throughout the semester, based on our co-created aspirations for the great discussions.
  • I noted that it might feel different to talk about issues right here in community, events and ideas that touch us closely.
  • I reminded them that they were free to interact with the discussion as much as they liked and could take a break or leave at any time.
  • Before we all spoke together, I asked them to compare their ideas with those of one or two people around them and decide what they’d like to share respectfully with the class.
  • The students had so often worked in small groups that this activity likely increased their comfort level.
  • Finally, I asked them help let everyone who wanted to speak by waiting before speaking a second time to see whether anyone who hadn’t yet spoken wanted to contribute.

The ensuing whole-class discussion only once looked as though it might turn emotional or confrontational. But the students turned the conversation back to listening and responding respectfully. Several students thanked me for making room for this conversation, and one took the time to email not only her thanks but ideas that she was still thinking about hours later.

From Bonnie Gordon, Associate Professor & Director Graduate Programs, McIntire Department of Music

In the music department we have been thinking hard about sexual misconduct, student mental health, and the effects of community issues on pedagogy. Music departments tend to function both curricularly and extracurricularly. In addition to small seminars and performance situations, our performance faculty teach students in individual lessons once a week. Moreover, music is an intensely personal experience so our classes often encourage students to think about their personal experiences. Beyond the classroom many of us supervise students in performance ensembles or perform with our students. This means that as a department we necessarily interact with our students outside of class and often also notice very quickly when our students are in distress.

We began working aggressively on the connected issues of safety, sexual misconduct and student life when second year student Hannah Graham disappeared. This was a wake up call for us. We have hundreds of students in our building until late each night: rehearsing with ensembles, using the music library, and using practice rooms. Our students also frequently play musical gigs or attend concerts and other events off Grounds as part of ethnographic projects.

After Hannah Graham disappeared we realized that in addition to working with individual students, we needed to think hard about how to work with our students as a collective. We formed a committee comprised of a tenured professor music historian, assistant professor of ethnomusicology Nomi Dave, non-track performance faculty Ayn Balija, graduate student Rachel Trapp, and fourth year undergraduate Olivia Bona, to assess our needs and take quick action. By the time the Rolling Stone story came out we had already been working hard on these issues and had created a mechanism to address issues raised by the article. Below are the actions we took at the end of fall semester 2014 and during spring semester 2015. We were able to work effectively because we delegated tasks, asked committee members to work with their peers, and were lucky to have complete structural and budgetary support from our chair Richard Will.

The effect of all of this action was that many of our classes at every level addressed the issues surrounding rape and racial violence that the Rolling Stone article and the Martese Johnson incident brought up. Soft surveys indicated that for many students the music department was the only setting in which these issues were discussed in class. We also had five people complete various levels of Green dot training and have worked hard to make sure that our colleagues understand the implications of the changing landscape around title IX and that our colleagues are aware of issues that students are facing. The specific actions we took are listed below.

 

  1. Music Department Teach In on Sexual Misconduct
  2. Music Department Syllabus Statement
  3. Gigging Musicians Guide to Getting Home Safely
  4. Faculty and Grad Student Suicide Prevention Workshop
  5. Faculty and Grad Student Survivor Support Network Training
  6. Encouraged faculty and graduate students to participate in Green dot.
  7. Green Dot presentations to Faculty and Performance faculty and Very High Green Dot participation
  8. Self Defense Workshop held in March 2015
  9. Walk Home Safely Program
  10. High participation in various dialogues on community, race, and sexual violence.
  11. New Fight Song Competition
  12. Coordinated lists of places on the Lawn where increased lighting would benefit everyone.

 

From David Leblang, Chair, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

I teach an undergraduate seminar that meets Wednesdays from 1:00-3:30.  We took a break around 2:15 and when I returned to the classroom to find all my students looking at a youtube video. I asked what happened and we started discussing the events.  That discussion turned into a larger conversation about violence on campus, the Rolling Stone article and subsequent retraction, and the general mood of students on grounds over what has been a tumultuous academic year.  I referenced that we would spend the balance of class talking about this—not just because it would be impossible to return to the class material, but because the students said that none of their professors had engaged in a discussion of Rolling Stone, Hannah Graham, etc.  So we talked.  I found it cathartic and I know the students did as well.

After that seminar I thought hard about sending an email to politics students in my capacity as chair.  I struggled and struggled with what to say.  And, as you can guess, the longer I put it off, the more I struggled to find the “perfect” thing to say.  I mentioned this to Bonnie when I saw her on Sunday, March 22.  She convinced me that saying anything, even something imperfect, was better than nothing.  So I wrote the following:

*****

Dear Politics Students,

The events last week on the corner and the response authorities left most of us stunned, surprised, angry, and hurt.  It left me speechless and searching for answers which, I admit, is not something I am used to.  I had thought about sending an email letting you know about student services and encouraging you to seek support from CAPS or your Association Dean.  But that felt trite and a little condescending.

I spent the weekend thinking about what to say to you.  It finally dawned on me that not having an answer is not a problem.  A University is a place where we come together to ask questions and to seek answers even if those answers are not obtainable.  Usually our questions and answers are confined to scholarly pursuits.  The events of this academic year vividly illustrate, however, that real life often gets in the way.  It has been a challenging year as a faculty member so I can only imagine how difficult it has been to be a student on grounds.

We have always been concerned with providing the best education possible.  But know that the faculty, staff and students here in Politics—as well as across grounds—are engaged in an ongoing discussion about how to ensure that teaching and learning occur within a safe environment. Politics faculty are available if you want to talk.

Best wishes,

David Leblang

Chair, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

******

The response I received was amazing.  I kept three:

“Thank you for sending this out.  My name is Matthew Kincaid and I am a fourth year in the Politics DMP program.  Tonight, after sending in the first drafts of our full work to Prof. Furia, several of us gathered for dinner to celebrate and inevitably started talking about the events of last week.  It was exactly what we needed after all that has happened this year.

I wanted to quickly write to thank you for encouraging discussion that includes asking tough questions.  This discussion is happening and prevalent among the politics majors I’ve encountered and I’m very heartened by both those discussions and your words here tonight.  “

And

“Dear Professor Leblang,

Thank you.  For once, we are receiving an e-mail regarding this event that shows a heartfelt response.”

—————————————-

Dear Professor Leblang,

I wanted to thank you for your sincere, non generic note. It was refreshing. It was striking how the students responded to what I felt to be a poor expression of sentiment by me.  It really demonstrates that they crave engagement.

I hope that this is helpful with your program. I do apologize that I cannot be there.  Do let me know if I can be of additional help.

Best,

David

From Elizabeth Friberg, Associate Professor, School of Nursing

I teach a 3-hour population and public health nursing course on Tuesdays for our RN-BSN students. These part-time students are adult learners from all over the Commonwealth working toward the baccalaureate degree following completion of an associate degree and entry-level licensure as a registered nurse. Some have several years of experience as a registered nurses, full time jobs, family and lives. The majority of students are newly licensed and often adjusting to their first full time position as a registered nurse, juggling jobs, school and families. The class of 36 is composed of 22% male students and 78% female students and racially mixed (under 15%). The students come to grounds for an intense one day a week with doubled up class sessions to accommodate their lives. Faculty makes every effort to integrate them into the life of the university.

I came to class the first Tuesday after the events on The Corner. It had already been a tough academic year. As a faculty, we discussed our willingness to create a space for dialogue for our students. I took the opportunity to open a discussion on violence on and around UVA grounds not quite sure what the students were aware of or how engaged they were with the events. Violence is a relevant topic for this population health focused course. The students were aware of recent events and we folded in a broad discussion on violence, the deaths of students on and off grounds, the ABC student assault on The Corner and the Rolling Stone article. Several students related personal experiences from their own lives, including an encounter with ABC officers. Other students spoke about being law enforcement families and wanting their loved-ones to come at night. The students expanded the conversation to discuss recent media events related to black deaths at the hands of police enforcement and subsequent demonstrations resulting in further violence. The students were willing to explore the many faces of violence and the lived experiences of victims of violence as well as the challenges we face as a society to take a critical stance on these issues. The conversation went on uninterrupted for 45 minutes with the majority of students actively engaged in the dialogue. It came to a natural end and students took a ten minute break before class resumed. I had no idea how this opportunity would be embraced by this unique cohort of students but I can say, I was very pleased with the outcome. Creating a space, is key.

I subsequently participated in an open forum organized by faculty for all levels of students but especially the traditional undergraduates. The open forum filled a large classroom to overflowing. The Dean and Director of Inclusion, Diversity and Excellence facilitated the session. The students expressed deep emotions and articulated what they wanted from the SON faculty during these tough times and many tears were shed. Being present to the pain in the room was a privilege. Faculty and students have moved ahead with a commitment to respond and support both students and faculty when adverse events shake us to the core. There are lessons to learn.

From a head TA in science

Unfortunately my story is one of lack of acknowledgement about the difficult and challenging events that our students have struggled with this past year.   I have been the head TA for the [science] labs for the past four years and will be the instructor for the course next year. Each semester we have ~1400 students enrolled in the course, and over 30 TAs who are the instructors and directly interact with students on a weekly basis.

My role is to train the TAs and to circulate around the labs every few hours to check on TAs and observe students. I desire to discuss events that are impacting our students, but I am challenged by how to do so given the number of students we have and the lack of interaction I have with them. If I tried to meet with each student in the course for 10 minutes to try and get to know them in some capacity, I would spend 233 hours in meetings each semester.   This is quite overwhelming!

The majority of students enrolled in the [ . . .] labs are first-year students, and each semester I receive multiple emails about students who are struggling with illness and depression, and I am notified of students who have left the university. I know our students are struggling, and I want to help them. I want them to know that despite their limited interaction with me as the instructor that I care and want to help them succeed at UVA.

I need help in finding ways to help our students who are taking large-enrollment courses such as the General Chemistry lab. How do I reach out and show students I care? Is an email or a group announcement enough, or would that seem insincere? How can I train my TAs to be mindful and acknowledge these challenges with their students? What is a good balance between one-on-one support, which I cannot do with the number of students I serve, and not acknowledging events outside of the laboratory context, which is not what I want to do moving forward?

From Ira Bashkow, Associate Professor, Anthropology

I always at least mention such events in class, and because I teach Anthropology, there is often a way to tie them into course themes.

One of my Fall courses was “Anthropology of the Corporation” in which we discussed how organizations can (sometimes) change. After the Rolling Stone story, I posed an exam question in which one option (out of three students could choose among) was to write a letter to President Theresa Sullivan, responding to her invitation to community members to suggest ways to reduce the incidence of sexual violence at the University, applying insights from a particular reading and the course more generally. Several students wrote about this, and their responses taught me interesting things about how student life is organized, for example, that new students rarely have occasion to socialize in mixed gender groups apart from class or when in explicitly sexualized contexts like parties or “socials.” I was so impressed by the students’ thinking on this question that the following term, when I was serving on a University Working Group convened by President Sullivan to study strategies for sexual violence prevention, I got in touch with five of the students and invited them to dinner to discuss ideas for preventing sexual misconduct and gender and power-based violence on Grounds. That discussion produced some genuine insights that I wrote (with due thanks to the students!) into the Working Group’s final report.

In both of my Spring courses, my graduate teaching assistants (TAs) led discussions in section of reactions to the beating and arrest of Martese Johnson. This was at the TAs’ initiative, which I supported. In one of the courses, on “The Concept of Culture,” an upcoming assignment was to carefully observe and create a social interaction map of a space where interesting interactions take place, and I encouraged students from the class to choose to do their assignment about the space in front of the Trinity Irish Pub (or another similar establishment) where people were being carded while trying to gain entry. I was surprised that no student took this up. They might have learned something interesting! But possibly it felt like too much of a hot potato or too dangerous or embarrassing. Later, however, I did receive comments from students showing that they got the point that things they learned in the class are applicable to real-world problems that concern them. Just yesterday one student came to see me in office hours to tell me he was using ideas from the class to design a course of his own addressing (among other things) the difference between how white and minority students experience race and perceive discrimination. This student is African American, and he wants there to be more discussion of the way privilege is experienced by many white students as assured or secure, but by many minority students as provisional or fragile — a contrast that is highlighted by Martese Johnson’s violent arrest.

From Judith Reagan, Senior Associate Director, Teaching Resource Center and Associate Professor, Department of Drama

Classroom Consideration of Difficult Matters

This semester I taught Oral Interpretation. Each student had stated his/her learning goals prior to enrolling in the course. To a person they wanted to gain confidence and facility with public expression – to be able to express their ideas orally with clarity and conviction. An interesting feature of this semester’s class is that half of the 12 students are from other countries (Azerbaijan, China, Columbia, Ecuador, Ethiopia). Even the 6 Americans hailed from different areas, Northern Virginia to Long Island.

As we progressed through the semester they seemed to delight in the individual perspectives, experiences, and even accents each brought to the class community.

We use different texts for vocal practice at the start of every session. A faculty listserve had made me aware of “What We Need from UVA Faculty, an open letter (in the form of individual comments) from one class of UVA students in response to the attack on Martese Johnson on the UVA Corner.” I wondered what my students would make of this strongly worded document, and, a bigger question, how they had been processing the several traumatic events of the past year. Not certain how they would respond, I gave “What We Need from UVA Faculty” to my students and invited them to each choose two comments that resonated with them to read aloud as the vocal warm-up at our next class meeting. I told them that if they did not find any comments they were in accord with, they could write their own thoughts on the topic. We all noted that these MANY statements had been generated in just the last 10 minutes of one class – a clear indication of how urgent the need for discussion is, and how ready many students are to embark on it.

Adding to my uncertainty about how my Oral Interp students would react to the very direct, passionate statements, at the opening of the next class we had two unexpected visitors – two high school students who, I think, had been accepted to UVA and were spending some time on Grounds sitting in on classes as a way of helping to decide whether to enroll. Both young men were African American. They needed no context for that opening exercise – they were fully aware of the incident. My students all read at least two statements from the compilation – one added song lyrics that underscored the tone and feel of the thoughts. Each read in a robust, confident manner. All of us – myself, my students and our visitors – were deeply engaged in listening to and absorbing the thoughts expressed by peers in another class. Rising to the demands of this text was a clear indication that the Oral Interp students are indeed reaching their goals – speaking with clarity and conviction on things that matter.

Teaching with Technology Inside and Outside the Classroom

Author: Itiya Aneece, PhD student in Environmental Sciences and Tomorrow’s Professor Today Alumna


Itiya AneeceWith the increase in the use of technology for entertainment, personal correspondence, and academics, it’s important to reflect on how this technology influences student learning. In this age of fast-paced delivery of poorly-filtered information, there is potential for digital media to inhibit learning by reducing attention spans, distracting learners, and presenting misinformation at the same level of trustworthiness as well-founded information. Therefore, it is important to think about how this technology can be used to facilitate learning inside and outside the classroom while avoiding pitfalls.

When laptops are allowed in class, students can be tempted to use them for things other than academics such as social media, email, and videos. These are temptations that not only distract learning in the moment but also develop a habit of short attention spans and unproductive multitasking. Such distracted multitasking is often encouraged with the demand to be ever-present online and respond to emails instantaneously, a problem for professors and teaching assistants as well as for students. These distractions are accessible now more than ever through the prevalence of smartphones, with the additional distraction of texting. Not only can these devices distract the student using them but they can also distract surrounding students who can see the screens. They can also be used to aid cheating in the classroom. To minimize misuse of computers and cellphones in class, the professor/ teacher can walk around the classroom a few times throughout the class; this is acceptable for small classes but impossible in lecture halls where the best way might be a no-tolerance policy. They can add cellphone and laptop use expectations in the policies document and have students sign them either under an honor code or an agreed list of repercussions.

Outside the classroom, distractions while using technology can make studying and doing homework more challenging and time-consuming. This is something students should realize when developing study habits, which can be encouraged by professors and teaching assistants by sharing the implications of these behaviors on students’ time-management and work quality.

Yet another potential danger of using technology is that it allows greater access to misinformation. Students are bombarded by good and bad sources of information presented on equal levels and are not always given the skills to differentiate between the two. With this prevalence of vast amounts of information and misinformation available to students, it is increasingly more important to teach students information retrieval and quality assessment. Professors/ teaching assistants can hand out a list of recommended sources of information or list of ways to determine whether a source is reliable or not.

Within the classroom, a good way to deal with shortened attention spans may be to take breaks or change the pace of the class frequently. Professor Perry Samson from the University of Michigan keeps the attention of the students by periodically posting questions that students have to answer by phone or laptop (Pappano 2014). Although professors and teaching assistants can’t control what students do in their spare time, they can make students aware of the difficulty of productive multitasking and the consequences of constant distraction.

There are also ways to encourage appropriate use of technology, which can then be used to supplement learning in several ways. In my class, I use the Collab site to post assignments, to lead forums in which students answer each other’s questions and do pre-lab assignments, and to post resources for students to review before class and to use for homework. I also encourage electronic submissions of homework to save paper and facilitate students receiving and paying attention to feedback. Additionally, students are allowed to have laptops open in class so they can follow along in the lecture/ discussion without having lab manuals printed and they can take notes and collect data electronically.

In the future I plan to continue increasing my use of technology in the classroom. Interactive syllabi are a great way to organize and refer to massive amounts of information and encourage students to refer back to the document throughout the course. I am also contemplating completely flipping the classroom so that students can review as much material outside of class as possible and come to class with questions to discuss and work on exercises that make abstract concepts from the lecture more concrete. In this way, students can directly ask the teaching assistant for help when they have a question. Students have in the past reviewed lecture material before class by reading lab manuals. However, the students become overwhelmed by the length and density of these manuals and so are not prepared for class. The material may be more accessible in video or module form. I’m exploring the use of Panopto or VoiceThread to record lectures and put together interactive tutorials. This would be especially important to some students learning how to use Excel for the first time because they will be able to follow along with the tutorial at their own pace and revisit the tutorial whenever necessary throughout the semester.

Although technology can be misused and become detrimental to learning, there are many ways in which it can greatly facilitate learning. As it is inevitable that students are going to use computers, smartphones, and tablets, they might as well be used for learning as well as entertainment. Through the use and explanation of policy and through example set by the professor or teaching assistant, students can learn how to use technology to aid learning both inside and outside the classroom; this skill will not only help students while in college but will also in their personal and professional lives.


Itiya Aneece is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. She has taught the Fundamentals of Ecology lab since the Fall of 2011, has recently completed the Tomorrow’s Professor Today program, and enjoys exploring new ways to encourage learning.


Looking for more on this topic?  May we suggest a 3-post series on face-to-face education in the digital age by TRC Assistant Director Matthew Trevett-Smith.

Face-to-Face Education: What Students Are Saying (Part 3)

We asked students around grounds to share their experience with the benefits of face-to-face education in an age of online learning.  During the next few weeks, we will share a number of personal narratives provided by students.

This week, Eric McDaniel (English major) shares his story:

Saying, “I disagree with you” with warmth is easier to do in person than with a keyboard.

 In an age of online learning, what are the benefits of interacting in person with your professor and your peers inside and outside of class?

As much as the internet offers us, it still leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of academic/intellectual conversation. When I offer an opinion in class, people can immediately respond and hear the responses of their classmates without fear of dead batteries, disk crashes, or connectivity problems. But more than that, you can see the body language of the rest of the room. Discomfort and awkward silence, people shifting in their seats, eye contact, true engagement — all of these things become much more readily apparent. And they are just as important — if not more important — to capture and comprehend in a conversation. Comments, emails, message threads, even group video chat cannot replicate that.

Can you give us an example of a face-to-face interaction in an instructional setting that made a difference for your learning?

Each day in my Spring 2013 seminar with 27 students, the passion and sincerity of the small group discussions was striking. We were able to broach topics like morality, religion, race, class, and so on without any major discomfort, because of the openness, trust, and fluidity facilitated by face-to-face interaction. Saying “I disagree with you” with warmth is much easier to do in person than over a screen, and the class facilitated such discussions over and over and over again, to great personal impact.

What suggestions do you have for professors who want to leverage the benefits of a face-to-face environment?

I would say it is hard to have healthy, deep, truly sincere interactions without a deep trust of those with whom you are in dialogue. Sharing is easier when you know your views will be respected, even when they are in the minority or controversial. Therefore, I would recommend a) letting students build relationships with those they are expected to dialogue with, and b) create a truly safe space in which to discuss material.

Interested in more student interviews from this series?
<– Read the previous post.

Click this link for more information on the TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

Face-to-Face Education: What Students Are Saying (Part 2)

We asked students around grounds to share their experience with the benefits of face-to-face education in an age of online learning.  During the next few weeks, we will share a number of personal narratives provided by students.

This week, Andrews Inglis (undecided, leaning towards Cognitive Science with a minor in Religious Studies) shares her story:

Why Else Would Elite Universities Have Such a Draw if it Were Not for the Opportunity to Interact with World-Class Professors?

In an age of online learning, what are the benefits of interacting in-person with your professor and your peers inside and outside of class?

A major part of one’s education is living and being in a community in which nearly everyone has something to share. Indeed, why else would elite universities have such a draw towards them if it were not for the opportunity to interact with world-class professors? The internet has made it easier for us to remain within ourselves and not take the effort to build relationships, from the ability to turn homework and essays in online to opting to write an email to a professor instead of going to see them in their office. However, it is exactly those interactions with professors that make college so special. Professors can be your teacher, your adviser, and not in the least your friend. I think that often students are intimidated to have a conversation with someone who knows so much about a specific topic, but once past the pleasantries of conversation the talks that you have with professors are sometimes the deepest and most thought provoking ones to be had. There is a certain type of satisfaction that comes from a conversation that causes you to think critically outside of the classroom and it is exactly that type of satisfaction that you get when you take the time to build a relationship with your professor.

Can you give us an example of a face-to-face interaction in an instructional setting that made a difference for your learning?

For me, the best part about face to face time with professors is not necessarily the time spent talking about the academic subject at hand but rather the idea of getting to know the professor. My Econ professor regularly held running office hours in which he would meet up with students and go running with them. We didn’t talk about economics at all while on our run but I did get to know him which seems special and neat to me given that teaches over 1,000 students each semester. In addition, I have regularly gone by my religious studies teacher to ask for advice on papers but our conversations have quickly turned into more than just discussing the paper. Through these talks he has shown me how much can be derived from looking at the Bible through a literary standpoint and how to move past what these stories are usually interpreted to mean. My conversations with him are one of the main reasons that I am interested in pursuing a minor in Religious Studies.

What suggestions do you have for professors who want to leverage the benefits of a face-to-face environment?

My suggestion for professors would be to really make an effort to get to know the student beyond just the questions they are asking about the course. I think it is fair to say that most students go to office hours in hopes of getting to know the professor more and only use the questions they have about the course as a kind of ice breaker. It would make it easier for the student if the professor were willing to move past the pleasantries themselves and onto more substantial topics. That is how lasting relationships are formed and in my experience lasting relationships are the most rewarding ones.

Interested in more student interviews from this series?
<– Read the previous post.                Read the next post. –>

Click this link for more information on the TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

On Mentoring Faculty

Cristina Della Coletta shares her insights on mentoring junior faculty in a short interview. If you are interested in more information, please visit the TRC’s online resource for faculty mentoring.

Cristina Della Coletta interview by Dorothe Bach, Teaching Resource Center.

In this interview, Cristina Della Coletta, Associate Dean for the Arts and Humanities and Professor of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese shares her insights on mentoring junior faculty. Cristina mentored numerous colleagues through Teaching Resource Center programs such as the Excellence in Diversity Fellows Program and the University Teaching Fellows Program.

Face-to-Face Education: What Students Are Saying (Part 1)

We asked students around grounds to share their experience with the benefits of face-to-face education in an age of online learning.  During the next few weeks, we will share a number of personal narratives provided by students.

This week, Ashley O’Keefe (Biology Major) shares her story:

“I went into office hours feeling dejected and walked out knowing that I had the ability to succeed.”

In an age of online learning, what are the benefits of interacting in-person with your professor and your peers inside and outside of class?

I think that the benefits of in-person interactions are endless! In-person discussion enhances learning in a way I find little else does. I find that when I am talking to someone, or I am listening to someone talk, I am more likely to have questions, and more likely to engage in a deeper fashion. Dialogue has a way of sparking new thoughts and ideas that I might not have arrived at on my own. In-person interactions are also more engaging, and they feel more important.

Can you give us an example of a face-to-face interaction in an instructional setting that made a difference for your learning?

One face-to-face interaction that really stood out to me was my conversation with my Organic Chemistry professor. I was not doing well in the class, and I began to doubt my intelligence. I knew that to do better, I would just need to work even harder and put in more time. But I needed to talk to someone about it. So I went into my professor’s office hours. Before these office hours, she was just a professor that I listened to for a few hours a week, but after this, the class seemed so much more personal to me. She took 50 minutes just talking to me about the class, about my worries, and she even shared an experience when she was feeling similarly.

This personal interaction made all the difference! I went in feeling dejected and stupid, and walked out knowing that I had the ability to succeed and that I could and would succeed. My professor didn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t tell myself, but it was the personal interaction, and the feeling that she actually cared about me and about how I was doing, that made all the difference in the end. The next test I did tremendously better than I had been doing previously.

What suggestions do you have for professors who want to leverage the benefits of a face-to-face environment?

My best advice for professors who want to increase the benefits of face-to-face interactions is to take time and be available. Obviously, small classes are the best way to go, because they foster these types of personal interactions on a daily basis. But sometimes smaller, discussion based classes are not possible. In these situations, it is so important for the professor to be accessible, and to actively promote questions and interaction with the class.

In one class I took, the professor asked questions to a large class on a daily basis. This caused the class to be more of a discussion, and more of a pooling of ideas rather than just a straight lecture. I really liked this because even if I was not participating myself, I was listening to someone else’s thought process as they reasoned through a question, and as the professor led me to my own conclusions through the thoughts of others.

Finally, being available for office hours and other appointments is essential.

Interested in more student interviews from this series?
Read the next post. –>

Click this link for more information on the TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.