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Digital Storytelling in the Higher Ed Classroom

February 22, 2012

Since I’m off to present at a conference on digital storytelling this weekend, here’s a quick summary of what digital storytelling is. As instructors, we are always on the hunt for new assignments and projects that can engage students and most effectively meet the learning objectives of the class. Something you might consider using is digital storytelling.

Georgetown University has a fantastic site that overviews the research behind the process, gives some examples of digital stories and gives some reasons why digital storytelling might be useful in your classroom. Their definition of digital storytelling is this:

“Digital stories are multimedia projects combining text, images, audio and video files into short film clips…. In recent years, digital storytelling has turned college and university classrooms into spaces of creative critical multimedia production. Digital stories have proven to be a powerful medium for students to represent a theoretically-informed understanding of texts and contexts in a form other than “traditional” writing.”

The Center for Digital Storytelling adds the ‘nuts and bolts’ to the description:

“A digital story is a a 2-to-4 minute digital video clip, most often told in first person narrative, recorded with your own voice, illustrated mostly with still images, and with an optional music track to add emotional tone.

More and more, students are comfortable using digital media such as video and music editing software and it is free and available on almost every computer, smart phone and online. It engages students with new media and with what they’re comfortable with. Tired of iPhones in class? Put them to work for your next class assignment!

How can you use it? Connect an important moment in family history to a major world event. Connect a childhood memory of school to how the student writes/wants to teach/sees authority/etc… Get the students to document a 2min clip of their week to highlight how politics or power affects them in material ways. Obviously, there are more fits with humanities and social sciences but I would be curious to see someone utilize it in more ‘rigid’ disciplines – the possibilities can be endless.

Beyond the media aspect of this, one of the great benefits of these storytelling projects is the chance for students to bring their own voice and stories into class, recognizing that students carry knowledge and experience prior to stepping into the class. It is a chance to collectively bring and share knowledge that is personal and important to the students. Often we expect students to remove the personal, to be objective learners and researchers, to scrub any taint of their personal opinion from their papers – this is a chance to flip the script, to show that their personal experiences, their histories, and their memories are an important part of the project of a collaborative learning place and of a pedagogy of inclusiveness.

To read more about digital storytelling, check out these texts:

J.B. Ohler – Digital Storytelling in the Classroom – New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity (2008)

J. McDrury & M. Alterio – Learning through Storytelling in Higher Education (2003)

The Role of Mentors in Higher Education

February 20, 2012

The academic life is often neatly broken down into segments and percentages; a half-time teaching position there, a percentage dictated for departmental service, time and money allotted for a specific research project. But we all know that when these neat models are applied to reality, they don’t really seem to fit or reflect what actually happens, there’s always more to do, tasks unaccounted for and each project seems to bleed into the other.

With all the (organized) chaos that academic life often seems to be, where does mentoring fit in? Or is mentoring even necessary? What does mentoring look like for faculty? Is it what happens when you agree to supervise a theses? Does it enter the classroom? Is it part of the relationship with other, perhaps junior, faculty?

An excellent article by Victoria based Janni Aragon argues that mentoring is necessary. She writes:

“When we become the experts or specialists, though, we need to remember our responsibility to take others with us. We cannot hoard our expertise and stingily mete out information or resources to a select few. Yes, the mentoring, sharing or sponsoring of students and colleagues takes time, but it’s worth it. This can help increase the presence of more diverse faculty, administrators, and staff on college campuses.”

What does this have to do with teaching? In the classroom there is so much more that goes on beyond the simple transfer of knowledge. Part of the role of the instructor is to mentor students, to give them opportunities to grow, to work with them on skills such as writing academic pieces, and sharing tips and opportunities. It involves a realization that your student’s experience is bigger than just your class, that you are one piece in the puzzle of their academic career. This understanding leads to finding ways to integrate your class and its goals into the larger picture. How can you help your students succeed not only in your class but in their larger goals?

Mentoring is also a very important aspect of what we do in supporting faculty and graduate students (future faculty?). A great article on Kosmos looks at the ‘ins and outs’ of mentoring but, importantly, mentoring is about relationships and community.  It goes beyond supervision or making them feel welcome in their new environment/department. It is part of a larger thrust to build a knowledge producing and sharing community, as well as an integral part of critical pedagogy. It is very much about building relationships.It involves sharing knowledge, being available to answer questions and concerns, being approachable, being proactive in building skills in your students and colleagues, such as proposal writing, departmental practices, research protocols. Often higher education can be a terrifying and demoralizing project, one you know all too well – how can you make it less so for others?

Mentoring is not easy; it takes time and commitment. Time is often in short supply in the academic life but if we are serious about building community, building relationships and improving our academic and teaching spheres, mentoring is something that is worth the time and effort.

Another Take on Silence in the Higher Education Classroom

February 16, 2012

Every instructor has at least one: the student who never says a word in class unless directly asked to. To combat this perceived lack of engagement, often instructors build in a ‘Participation Mark’ to encourage dialogue and participation. Some instructors are sensitive to those who are afraid of public speaking but, especially at the university or graduate level, there is often a demand on these students to overcome their fears (and in the process dismissing all issues as ‘fears’ to be overcome) and to be an able debater.

But what if there’s more to the silence? A short article titled, “The Implications of Silence for Educators in the Multicultural Classroom” argues that the nature of silence is complex but often,

“Instructors sometimes falsely assume that non speaking students are not engaged in the learning. Some studies have reported that instructors incorrectly misinterpret students’ silence as disengagement when using conventional understandings of silence but those silent students were engaging through other means such as paying attention, taking notes, or thinking about the material presented in class”

The article argues that, depending on the culture that the student comes from, silence might be taken as respect or what is expected in traditional learning systems. Beyond this, many other writers have taken a postcolonial or anticolonial stance and looked at how silence is an act of resistance by minoritized students who don’t see themselves as appreciated or represented in the educational systems. It could even be that silence is an act of resistance or purposeful disengagement by students who don’t see their learning styles appreciated or represented in the pedagogy. It can also be a safety mechanism because their history has been one of rejection when they spoke up in class.

As an instructor, we need to be aware of the complexities of silence and not always fall back on the easy answer of disengagement or disinterest.

Blogs in the Higher Education Classroom: Public or Private?

February 13, 2012

Blogs, such as this one, are nothing new. No one is groundbreaking or cutting edge by starting a blog (unless, of course, this is the 1990′s!). Blogs are a full part of what has been dubbed Web 2.0, the cluster of interactive, user-driven social media and technologies on the web.

Still, the use of the blogs and other social media as pedagogical tools for the classroom has seen slower implementation, especially in institutions and with faculty that are wedded to more traditional styles and techniques. Others are more interested in the integration of technology and social media into the classroom as a way of challenging pedagogical models and as tools to enhance and further current models. So, with that, I want to look briefly at the use of blogs as a pedagogical tool in the classroom, their benefits, and one of the major questions that needs to be considered in their use:

Should blogs in the classroom be public or private?

To do that, I will use this article as a starting point: The Appropriation and Repurposing of Social Technologies in Higher Education (just click on the link to read it, not gated!)

Social media, Web 2.0 and blogs have been spaces that are oriented towards openness, collaboration and networking – all things that can be beneficial in the classroom. In the interviews collected in the above paper, some of the benefits of blogging, specifically, are:

  • “I think it can encourage them [students] to learn more as a group, and to be more aware of each others’ engagement with the same materials” (p. 26).
  • I think it also enhances the role of the teacher, of them becoming a facilitator rather than somebody who has an authority to speak on a particular topic” (p. 26).
  • “A lot of the issues that students have with writing for assessment is that they do no really have a vision of who the audience is and blogging changes that….So the blog as an assessment tool brings back the notion of audience into the frame” (p. 25).
  • “[The lecturer] can be more aware of what level of understanding the students have from the reading and what is required to engage with students’ understanding and to stretch it” (p. 27).

The paper examines and compares two styles of blogging assignments, which are:

  1. The blog remained private between the teacher and the student, allowing for intensive and formative one-on-one support and limiting much of the riskiness and volatility of ‘true blogging’.
  2. Each blog was open to fellow class members and teachers only. Students were required to take turns posting substantive blog posts on the weekly readings and other class members would comment on the posting. The content would then act as a starting point for the weekly class discussions.

There are a couple of points to consider when determining if a more public or more private blogging experience is appropriate for your class.

  • “A group blog is more like a discussion board…people are having to think very carefully about what they say…whereas with a private blog…they can feel more relaxed” (p. 24).
  • Private blogs allow for more intensive support and feedback and more security for the student but limit the connective and networking possibilities of Web 2.0 (p. 22).

There are a few more things to consider. With the more private blog model that is given above, the assignment is not dissimilar from a weekly response paper or journal assignment except that it is posted on the web in a paperless format. It is a way for instructors to monitor the step-by-step learning and engagement process of students, giving appropriate feedback and guidance along the way. But if it the collaborative and connective possibilities of social media that intrigue you, this model lacks those unless some sort of sharing or commenting is implemented.

One of the great things about social media is that it is a new tool to meet pedagogical goals. Technology is actually limiting if we implement it simply for the sake of using something new.  Instead: outline your pedagogical goals and look for the tools that can best help you meet them.

If your goals is collaborative learning, critical engagement as a community, etc… social media, such as a blog, can be useful tools in meeting these goals.

You need to choose the model that  is right for your classroom and the one that fits your pedagogical goals and, in deciding, questions of  security, openness, and engagement need to considered.

Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #3 Dealing with Sensitive Issues

February 10, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The third area on STLHE’s list is: Dealing with Sensitive Issues.

How do we define what becomes a ‘sensitive’ issue? Who defines it? Often, what becomes a sensitive issue – race, gender, physical disability, mental health, sexuality, class, and more – is actually an extremely important issue but the designation of ‘sensitive’ allows it to be infrequently talked about, or talked around rather than directly addressing the issues. How does this affect the ways we think about ‘sensitive’ issues in the classroom and why does this matter?

The STLHE suggests that ethical teaching is: “Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting are dealt with in an open, honest and positive way.”  Much of what is deemed sensitive will depend on the student. Some will find dealing with certain topics honestly the discomforting part. For example, when discussions around racism happen in classrooms, often there is some discomfort from White students over having to face systems of domination that they are implicated within. While, for minority students, perhaps being honest requires discomfort on their part from reliving past traumas in uncertain spaces. Perhaps, if topics like racism are to be dealt with there is need for a certain amount of discomfort. ‘Sensitive’ topics are vested with all sorts of power relations and discussions that are not always easy to suss out in the classroom.

There are issues around ‘honesty’. Often people cloak their misinformation, prejudice or hatred within the guise of honesty or ‘straight shooting’. You might hear, “You might not agree but I’m just telling it like I see it,” or, “That’s just the way it is” when, in reality, there is very little that will appear the same and be ‘honest’ to a whole classroom, especially around such divisive topics such as race, gender or sexuality. So how can an educator in Higher Education be ethically responsible when it comes to such issues?

I believe that it begins with interrogating one’s own position on the issue. What are you opinions on the topic, where do they come from, and how has this positioning biased you in particular ways? There is very little that is subjective, especially around these issues. Knowing where you stand and how you got there will go a long way towards mediating discussion in your class and showing students the processes involved in recognizing their own positions. Part of being able to see your own position is recognizing the limitations of it. I remember an old episode of the once popular TV show Boston Public which was set in a Boston high-school. A White teacher was intent on interrogating the power of the “N-word” when used with and towards African-Americans. After some controversy, the Black principal of the show was quite clear in telling the teacher, “Unless you’ve experienced the power that the word has, you are not qualified to talk about its power.”

There is perhaps some truth in this, in recognizing how one’s positions can limit the discussions taken up. This is not to say that these discussions cannot happen but that there is a time to recognize our own limits as instructors and turn to the knowledge of the students or others to fill in the gaps. It is in discussions around ‘sensitive’ issues that there is a need for collective knowledge gathering and sharing, perhaps more than at any other time. There is a need to hear more voices than the instructors.

This in itself is filled with its own perils: How do you keep the discussion civil and productive? How do you ensure that students feel safe sharing their experiences, especially around topics that might leave them vulnerable? Is safety always productive?

There are no ‘set-in-stone’ answers but, as instructors, there is the need to think about these issues before hand and to locate one’s own position around the issues so that when they come up in the classroom (and they will) they are dealt with in productive rather than harmful ways.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 4: Student Development

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students

Part 6: Confidentiality

Are Teaching & Research Oppositional?

February 9, 2012

An article last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights what I’ve believed all along – teaching is an important part of being an academic, a scholar and a member of the higher education community.

The article details a recent study in the Science journal which argues that grad students who both teach and conduct research show greater improvement in their research skills than those who restrict themselves to just conducting research. Teaching vs. research is a bad binary that limits the dialogue and cordons off faculty and students into ‘research streams’ or ‘teaching streams’.

What is needed is more focus on praxis, the connection between the research and the practicing of the theory and skills learned. Teaching is about more than simply instructing others or relaying information, it is about practicing theory, finding new and innovative ways to communicate information, and about being reflective – all things that will prove beneficial for the researcher. Research is about more than analyzing and collecting data and then writing about it, it is about exploration, analytical thinking, and problem solving – all things that will prove beneficial for the teacher.

So, instead of the typical viewpoint which sees teaching as a distraction from research, perhaps we need to see teaching as a vital part of developing research skills. This also demands an expansion of the definition of research beyond publishable material. There is the need for the re-envisioning of the role of the academic to a more holistic vision that sees the connections between service, teaching and research – each informing and strengthening the other.

The Many Types or Forms of Academic Writing

February 7, 2012

As a faculty member or student there are many types of academic writing that you engage in, some of them taught and some of them assumed. Often there is little recognition of the different writing styles needed to succeed or an assumption that one method/technique translates across styles. Here are some of the more common academic writing pieces and some tips and hints for each.

  1. The Scholarly Article: When talking about academic writing, this is typically what is assumed. Written for class requirement or for scholarly publication, it demands a high level of research, a clear thesis, and being able to convey a convincing and coherent argument. Writing a good scholarly article is necessary for an academic – it passes courses and publications are the currency of the academic world. There are hundreds upon hundreds of resources to consult but Chris Blattman has some good tips which underscore the importance of an outline (use section headings!), organization and supporting your claims and Mary Bucholz does similar with some of my favorite tips, including ‘abandon perfectionism’ and creating a publishing pipeline. For more, scholarly articles abound and the journal you wish to publish in likely has guidelines and perhaps even an article outlining their pro tips.
  2. The Grant or Funding Proposal: Perhaps even more so than the scholarly article, the funding proposal is the lifeblood of many junior academics. It means money to continue to write more scholarly articles; though, arguably, you need good scholarly articles to get funding (a vicious circle indeed!). Summing it all beautifully is Robert Porter’s presentation: “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals“. Perhaps the best tips I’ve seen are in SSHRC’s “On the Art of Writing Proposals” and Adelphi University has a 50pg handbook with every minute detail you might need to know.
  3. The Conference Proposal or Abstract: It’s a little more complicated than cutting and pasting the first paragraph of an existing paper… GradHacker has some good general hints and also notes that proposals really vary from discipline to discipline. EDUCAUSE also has some great suggestions for improving conference proposals, including – Don’t underestimate the power of your abstract!
  4. The Reference Letter: Every faculty member at some time is inundated with requests for reference letters and some seem to have a permanent, never ending list of letters to write. It’s a common writing form and there is a particular skill to writing a good reference letter. Yale has done some research and come up with some great advice, especially in regards to what works and what doesn’t in reference letters. A column on the Chronicle of Higher Education wonders why ‘all the children are above average and answers, “Given the required rhetoric of excellence, how can a letter for a job candidate be written to be more useful?” And, for a Canadian example, Western breaks down all the elements of a successful reference letter. Related, Chris Blattman advises students on how to get the best letter from the faculty member they ask.
  5. The Email: Almost all correspondence between colleagues, professors, advisors, or really anybody is done over email. Arguably, email has ruined the art of correspondence (and even spelling and grammar!) but it the email doesn’t have to be a poorly written, short form jumble of mistakes. Chris Blattman takes it away again with some helpful hints for students emailing professors and The Professor is In has an excellent example of how an email to a professor (as a future adviser) should look. The Purdue OWL makes the most important points (among others) which is, write clear, short paragraphs and be direct and to the point (especially if you want a response!)
  6. The Short Article or Blog Post: Blogging is a different animal that scholarly articles and one that more and more institutions and academics are engaging in – a prime example is the FedCan blog which features pieces from well known academics in North America. Blogs are shorter, contain fewer references, are often on recent events, are more to the point, and use links if readers want to explore further – what you said in 10,000 words needs to be distilled to 1,000 words. Melonie Fullick discusses if you should start blogging, and even provides a follow up article. The University of Richmond has some good points such as ‘get to the point’ and the importance of images. I think there could be more writing on this…
  7. The Short Biography: If you ever present at a conference or publish articles or chapters in books, chances are you’ll be asked for a short biography detailing your current position, major achievements, area of work, etc. Often the maximum words count is 150-200 words so it is succinct, to the point and there is little room to tell about how stamp collecting is your hobby or how you have three beautiful children – unless it is somehow relevant. Whole areas of interest are summed up in a word or two and you have to decide which achievement or information is most pertinent.

These are merely some of the more common types of academic writing that is required (there are more!) – each with a particular set of guidelines and rules, each with different styles of writing and conciseness, and each with different skills to learn.