© 2016 Joseph Heathcott

Notes on teaching and learning

Teaching and learning are not the same thing.  I'll come back to this in a bit.

 

Seeing the City in New Ways

During the Fall of 2007, I launched a new undergraduate Urban Studies seminar titled "The Everyday City."  The course introduced students to the complexities of urban experience by examining the intricate relationship between architecture, urban form, and daily life of the city streets.  

 

One day during the following semester, I ran into a student on Fifth Avenue who had taken the course. Inevitably, the conversation turned to our class and her experience in it.  She admitted that, after she turned in her final project, she was not sure exactly *what* she had learned.  She was an Art major, and had taken the course at a very busy time.

 

However, this student went on to tell me that, while walking around Chicago with her friend during winter break, she startled herself with one insight after another about the city.  She was able to explain why skyscrapers developed, why they were located in particular places, and their effects on the surrounding areas.  She told her friend about inner city neighborhoods, why they look the way they do, and the many causes of their decline.  In other words, she demonstrated applied knowledge.  As she put it, "I felt like I was seeing the city in new ways for the first time!"

 

This student’s experience matches my goals for the course.  While some courses might legitimately require students to master significant content, my primary goal in "The Everyday City" was to foster critical thinking by equipping students with the tools to read and interpret the city.  These tools are largely conceptual, so assignments in and out of class had to challenge students to master concepts, themes, and ideas relevant to the analysis of urban life. 

 

The student ended up double-majoring in Art and Urban Studies.

 

Stumbling Toward Vocation

 

I was inspired to a vocation as an educator through encounters with several master teachers at my undergraduate institution, including the philosopher William Gass, social theorist Joyce Trebelcot, mathematician Edward Spitznagel, historians Mark Kornbluh and Rabbi Mark Saperstein, and writers Gerald Early and Stanley Elkin.  They made it look so easy.  Gass would barge into the lecture hall fumbling around his pockets for notes scribbled on a napkin, and then deliver a 90-minute lecture on aesthetics that kept us students rapt in attention.

 

I began my teaching career in graduate school at Indiana University, where I served as a TA for several large lecture courses, including John Bodnar's renowned Intro to US History, held in an auditorium decorated with Thomas Hart Benton murals.  When I say "began my teaching career," I mean that I stumbled through discussion sessions, insecure and unstable, trying everything I could think of to get an otherwise disinterested group of students talking.  After all, there is nothing inherent in pursuing a Ph.D. that qualifies one to teach.  So, looking to improve my performance, I took a wonderful seminar on pedagogy with the historian David Pace, which changed forever the way I think about teaching and learning.     

 

Since then, I've had the privilege to teach at many wonderful and supportive institutions. I've been designing and teaching courses, conducting independent studies, fielding internships, writing graduate exams, and serving on dissertation committees for nearly twenty years.  I've taught in a wide range of pedagogic environments, from small research seminars to community-engaged workshops, and from studios and master classes to large undergraduate lecture courses.  And while I'm still no William Gass, I've gotten pretty good at it.

 

Honing the Craft

 

While I love teaching, I've struggled through the years to connect it to learning.  Teaching and learning are deeply entwined in the pedagogic environment, but they cannot be collapsed as categories.  To teach is to engage in a practice of framing and conveying knowledge.  To learn is, at best, to incorporate that knowledge into new understandings of the world.  Just because we teach, there is no guarantee that learning is taking place

 

Likewise, we often make assumptions about students and the quality and extent of their learning.  Indeed, students may learn things in our classroom, but it may not always be because of our teaching.  After all, students aren't empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.  Rather, they come to the classroom with rich and complicated lives, with their own ideas and values, and they filter the material we present in ways that are rarely predictable and often out of our control. 

 

All that said, I take the craft of teaching very seriously.  Of course, the tools have changed: when I began teaching, we still used chalkboards, manual slide projectors, blue books, overhead projectors and transparencies.  Now we have powerpoint, digital projection, online modules, and virtual chats.  But the fundamentals of learning have not changed; these are rooted deeply in cognitive processes.  Different pedagogical approaches intersect in varied ways with student learning.  This is not simply a matter of class size or instructional mode; indeed, small seminars can be dull and uninspiring, and large lecture courses can be exciting and transformative.  Rather, good learning outcomes have to do with basic pedagogical precepts:

 

• Use inquiry, curiosity, and discovery to drive learning

 

• Design pedagogical environments that emphasize flexibility within parameters

 

• Invite students to become members of a research community, to think of themselves not only as receivers of knowledge, but as producers of knowledge as well

 

• Engage in work that bridges theory and practice, conceptual and applied knowledge

 

• Focus on well-delineated learning goals, rather than obsessing with "coverage"

 

• Create space for reflection, both on course material and on students' sense of vocation, goals, and commitments

 

My goal as an educator has shifted over the years.  Early in my career, I might have talked about "instruction" or "conveying knowledge" or even "enabling mastery of subjects."  These remain important, but they are not my primary role.  Instead, I see my purpose as an educator to be a one of guidance--someone who goes on a journey with students, someone who convenes a community of learners.  I am dedicated to strong mentoring and advising, and  I believe in giving students multiple ways to show facility with ideas, tools, and concepts.  Students seldom describe my courses as 'easy,' and in fact the most common complaint is the overload of reading and assignments.  But the high expectations that I maintain tend to yield strong work by students.

 

In the end, I have only the smallest influence over the smallest fraction of any given student’s life--those moments in which she is engaged in learning in my classroom.  But I hope that students can take away enough understanding from my courses, enough tools and ideas and knowledge, to look at some aspect of the world in new ways.