Seeing Things Differently

At first, I honestly didn’t know what to make of the video. When I first read about it on Inside Higher Ed, I wondered how bad it could be. But then I watched the full version on YouTube and realized there was so much going on. And depending on your perspective, the video could be interpreted in very different ways. To some, the video shows clear educational malpractice. To others, it demonstrates the boundaries of academic freedom and the limits of tenure. To me, it captures the complexity of the working in education today.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me provide some context. A few weeks ago, a tenured history professor at Ferris State University in Michigan shared an introduction video with his students in advance of their first day of classes for the spring semester. At times, the video is really funny. The professor draws on his knowledge of democracy and Christianity to sarcastically poke fun at his institution’s administration and the students’ expectations. But the video is also obscenity filled and profane. I won’t quote the professor here (check out the video or the article) but he definitely incorporates a level of profanity that would not be welcome in most environments, especially educational ones. Beyond his colorful language and humor, the professor also shifts emotions and focuses throughout the video. Sometimes, he appears calm and academic. Seconds later, he appears incensed and angry before switching again to sadness and remorse. The video captures a roller coaster of emotions, and it has been viewed almost 500,000 times on YouTube. While I would imagine that the video’s high level of viewership is mostly due to the emotional theater portrayed, the 6900 likes (and no dislikes?) may be communicating that something else is going on.

While I don’t support the professor’s communication choices or his educational decisions (Calvinistic grading?), I recognize the emotions he displays. From my perspective, he appears frustrated. And exhausted. And scared. And powerless. Like so many educators, he probably went into the teaching profession because he loves his content and loves supporting his students’ learning. This pandemic and the changes in instructional modality, however, have taken their toll on him. And while he may want to do the best for his students, he also recognizes that he’s putting himself in harm’s way teaching in a face-to-face classroom. I know I’m probably inferring a lot into one professor’s tirade, but I see so many colleagues and K-12 teachers conveying the same emotions he displays. Maybe not with the colorful profanities he uses, but the same emotions are there.

If you’re not an educator and you’re reading this, you may be thinking, “This pandemic has been hard for everyone,” which is absolutely true. But it’s been especially hard for those of us in the helping professions. Doctors. Nurses. Teachers. Social workers. I know I’m speaking broadly here, but for most of us in the helping professions, we have traditionally gotten energy from our roles. When we help someone else, we benefit personally. We’re inspired and recharged by the help we provide.

During this pandemic, however, the need for help has been too great and the circumstances too uncertain. Helping in this climate isn’t recharging like it once was. And that’s displayed in the record numbers of teachers who are leaving the profession and the video tirade posted by this one professor. So, while others want to focus on his obscene language or discuss the legality of his suspension from his position, I can’t look away from the larger systemic issues being displayed.

Be Curious

I’ve been rewatching the series Ted Lasso recently. I watched a few weeks ago, but my kids took an interest, so I’m watching it again. For those who may not have heard of the show, it features an American football coach (Ted) who moves to England to coach a Premier League team. While the show examines the cultural differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, the series is really about compassion, communication, and fatherhood. It’s a great watch.

Since the show features a lot of coaching references, I can’t help but think about the teaching aspects embedded in the main character’s role. Despite the challenges of coaching a sport he doesn’t really understand, Ted Lasso regularly demonstrates that the most important part of his work is building relationships with his players and by offering support in their times of need. Throughout his coaching, Ted drops witty words of wisdom to his players and coaching staff. Some (like “Be a goldfish”) become regular themes throughout the series. Others are offered in passing, but clearly have a larger impact on the players and coaches with whom Ted is working. Honestly, I’ve thought about writing a whole post just about what Ted Lasso can teach us about teaching and learning (and I still might). But this post took precedent today.

Last night, my family and I watched one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. I won’t get into the details of the episode, but at one point Ted references a Walt Whitman quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.” Ted shares the quote at a pretty pivotal moment in the episode, which really adds weight to the words. But beyond that, I’ve been reflecting on how powerful that quote can be for us as teachers. Before I dig into that, however, let me offer a slight admission. I couldn’t find any solid evidence that Walt Whitman ever said or wrote those words. In a poem, Whitman writes, “Be not curious about God” but I couldn’t find any reference to a poem where he said “Be curious, not judgmental” directly. I guess it’s one of those misquotation mysteries that happens via the Internet. So, I’ll just credit Ted Lasso.

Moving to Ted’s charge to “be curious, not judgmental,” I know I need to embrace this a little more in my work with students. I’ll have a student who hasn’t turned in an assignment or didn’t show up for class, and my initial reaction is to judge the student for their actions. Maybe a better route would be to be curious and check in with the student. I could easily send a quick email and inquire about their well-being. I’ve offered this advice in other posts (see Lead with Empathy) but I think it deserves reexamining and reframing. I know that empathy may not be an emotion that a lot of people feel comfortable with. But we can all get behind curiosity, right? Be curious.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Ted Lasso said it, or Walt Whitman wrote it. What really matters is that we’re curious about things before we make judgements. This applies to our roles as teachers, to our work with our colleagues, and to our lives as social beings interacting in communities, big and small.

Revisiting “A Politicized Space”

Over the winter break, I’m reading José Antonio Bowen’s new book Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection with a couple of colleagues. While the book was just released last fall, I saw Bowen speak at a conference before the pandemic started and he previewed some of the concepts there. The book is an attempt to educate collegiate faculty on the science of learning while also informing classroom practice. While the book covers a lot of territory, its main goal is promoting teaching strategies that can foster students’ critical thinking.

Buried in a chapter titled “The Difficulty with Thinking with Others,” Bowen shared some research that made me think about a blog post I wrote last September. In the post, I wrote about my effort to take a politically neutral stance in my classroom over the years and how I worried about my students’ responses if I differed politically from them. In that post, I discussed some research I had heard on the Hidden Brain podcast that involved sports team affiliations. While the research didn’t focus specifically on political backgrounds, I drew on the work to ground my neutrality decision. In his book, however, Bowen offers a more direct connection for my neutrality stance.

Bowen presents research conducted by Guilbeault, Becker & Centola (2018) who examined the impacts of political affiliation on social learning. Using an online surveying platform, the researchers organized groups of participants with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in each group. The groups were shown historical data on the depth of Arctic Sea ice from 1979 – 2013 and asked to draw on the data to individually predict the current sea ice depth. While the overall trend of the data shows the depth of ice is shrinking, the data also fluctuates from year to year. The last year shown (2013) showed a marked increase in depth from the previous year. To study the impact of political affiliation, the researchers examined four separate conditions.

In one group, participants were asked to examine the data and individually predict the current sea ice depth. The participants were asked to reflect further on the data and were prompted to make two more predictions. This served as the control group since the individuals didn’t really interact with one another.

In the second group, participants were again asked to examine the data and individually predict the current sea ice depth. Average predictions were calculated then shared with the group. Participants were then prompted to predict again. After the second round, new averages were calculated and shared with the group. The participants then predicted again.

The third group didn’t differ much from the second group in terms of research process. Each participant made predictions and averages were calculated and shared with the rest group. The participants again made two more predictions based on the group averages. While the overall process didn’t change from the second group, the individuals were shown the logos from the two political parties to remind them of the diversity of the group and of their own political affiliations.

Participants in the fourth group still made predictions based on sea ice data but were shown the estimates and political affiliations of the other members of their group before they made additional predictions.

Examining the findings, the researchers found that sharing group results helped individuals make more accurate subsequent predictions. An individual’s accuracy, however, was impacted by the “political salience” present in the groups. The researchers write:

Our findings show that when the salience of political partisanship is increased, even through minimal partisan priming, this social learning effect can be reduced, and belief polarization can be sustained. Our findings thus offer a cautionary conclusion. Politically diverse communication networks can indeed eliminate partisan bias in the interpretation of climate data but increasing the salience of partisanship can significantly limit the effectiveness of social learning.” (p. 9718).

Returning to my original post, I wrote “I worry that identifying as either a Democrat or a Republican within the classroom space would undermine my ability to be supportive and effective to all of my students.” If my goal is to support student learning, I now think it’s clear that I can be more effective coming from a position of political neutrality than trying to politicize the classroom environment.

References:

Bowen, J. A. (2021). Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection. JHU Press.

Guilbeault, D., Becker, J., & Centola, D. (2018). Social learning and partisan bias in the interpretation of climate trends. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(39), 9714-9719.

Top Post from 2021 – Part 2

This is it – the last post of 2021. As we navigate the final days of this year, I want to thank you for being here and reading these musings. As I shared when I first started this blog in 2009, this is a labor of love. I don’t do this to self-promote my work or to feed my own ego. I’m working through things, just like most of you. After more than fifty years of life, thirty years of teaching, twenty five years of marriage and more than twenty years of parenthood, I’m still trying to figure things out. And this space helps me do that. Thanks for being here. I hope to see you back here in 2022.

1. Living in My Head: In this post from April, I write about taking dance lessons with my wife. And how being out of our comfort zone can help us learn.

2. The Cold Call: Back in the late 1980s, I took a History of Physics course with Dr. Wofford (not his real name). That class caused more anxiety in me than any other class I’ve ever taken. In this post from May 2021, I explain why.

3. Dealing with Due Dates: From July 2021, I outline some research I learned from the Hidden Brain podcast and discuss how it applies to the deadlines we set for students.

4. Being Stupid? In this post from June 2021, I quote Martin Shwartz who writes, “The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.” In a way, that could be the mantra of this blog…

5. Stories Stay. Lessons Leave. Also from June 2021, this post discusses the ground rules for a campus learning community where we read The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019).

Top Posts of 2021 – Part 1

We’ve reached the end of 2021. As I look back over the year, I’m constantly reminded how much I value this space. I know that it’s mostly a one-way conversation where I reflect on something in the open. But I know you’re out there, regularly reading this stuff. I look at the statistics and the people who have signed up to receive this musing in their in-box and I’m honored by that. This has been (another) tough year and if this blog has brought you joy or helped you to reflect on stuff, that’s awesome. Because that’s what it does for me, too. Thanks.

So, without much more fanfare, over the next, I’ll be sharing the top visited posts from 2021. This week features posts six through ten. I’ll share the top five next week. See you in 2022!

6. Pass the Test? From May 2021, this post starts with an introduction of the Bechdel test before I go careening into my own test for whether a classroom involve active learning or not. I know it’s a cognitive leap, but I’ve been known to do that on occasion.

7. A Mindful Moment: In this post from October 2021, this post outlines a mindful practice that I’ve been incorporating into my teaching since the pandemic started.

8. Back in My Office: Written in August 2021, I share my excitement about being back in my office. And about finding a treasure that I unintentionally left myself.

9. Revising Guiding Principles: From another post from October, I re-examine some of the principles I’ve adopted over the last few years. While I’m still an advocate for “leading with empathy” and “assuming positive intent,” I offer an additional principle to clarify things.

10. Making trouble: In this post from September, I share a story about an act of civil disobedience when I was a fifth grader and protesting the school lunches at my elementary school. Somehow, I find a way to quote Representative John Lewis in my walk down memory lane.