The classroom, redux

Last December I wrote a long, convoluted piece about the university classroom as a space of respect, responsibility, and, possibly, late capitalist hegemony. I want to briefly revisit some of this as I come once again to the close of the fall semester and with another iteration of my first-year introductory human geography course, 45-120 Space, Place, and Scale: Foundations of Human Geography, behind me at last. This year though, I also have six months of service as my department’s undergraduate program chair and academic advisor to consider alongside the experience in my fall semester geography course, in which I experimented quite a bit (and perhaps too much) with readings and the structure of class time. I also taught two courses last winter, one a grad course on the Windsor-Detroit border region that I taught with a colleague from the history department, and my second year course on the Political Economy of Agriculture and Food, which is a well-oiled machine at this point, having taught it seven or eight times and honed my thematic and conceptual approaches and content over those versions of the class. The high point of that course came in late March when I demonstrated for the students through a quick online search that there is a robust commercial market for bull semen. Maybe not ‘teacher of the year’ material, but definitely not something the students will forget, and they learned a lesson about the commodification of life in industrial agriculture and livestock breeding.

As I said a year ago, every course is a bit of an experiment and I tried some things in the past two semesters that did not work at all, which has made me rethink my approach and, for next semester, make a plan to go old-school. Meanwhile, in my role as academic advisor for 300-plus undergraduate students in multiple political science programs, I have been made to think about the structure of whole programs rather than just individual courses. In this capacity, students have also told me how some of their other classes go (making me wish sometimes that I could unhear things I’ve heard) and about a range of personal and social impediments, anxieties, and limitations they face. Not to sound like the grumpy middle-aged man I have become, but I am not always sympathetic to these, though I try to help to the extent I can as advisor and counsel. But a major IT change at my university late this semester has also thrown a lot of my recent experience with undergraduate students and teaching into sharp relief by demonstrating something I had not considered much before, which is students’ resilience when confronted — many for the very first time — with a large, faceless institution that promises personal growth and attention but also often does not and, in most instances, can not really do much for the individual, at least not in ways they expect. Dozens of students came to see me at the end of the fall semester with minor setbacks posed by a course registration and student information system change that was university-wide. The most common initial problem was that some required courses had restrictions on them that incorrectly prevented some students from registering into them. This was easily fixed by myself and the department administrative assistant with a quick phone call or email, but students often reacted to this as an impenetrable roadblock to course registration and graduation. Others, especially in first year, had questions about which courses to take, and so I had made up some program checklists and offered direction to those with some electives on their schedule. But within that group, some had no idea what they wanted to take. The answer to my question “well, what are you interested in?” sometimes came back as “I don’t know, politics?” or *shoulder shrug*. This I can’t do much about, and I am cautious about drawing too many conclusions from this small subset of interactions with students, but the lack of capacity to deal with systemic change or to articulate their own personal interests was for me a little disconcerting. I could make all sorts of pronouncements about contemporary digital culture, or helicopter parenting, or the failures of K-12 education, but I would be painting with too broad a brush. Suffice to say, I was happy to help but unhappy with the things I often was required to help with.

In the classroom, I tried in my intro human geography class something that I will probably never do again, which was a team-based learning approach. On top of this, I shed the requirement of a central organizing textbook this semester in favor of weekly sets of two or three readings — all free, all available electronically via Blackboard — and divided the course assignments up into two exams and two short papers. I had attended a workshop at the last AAG meeting on team-based learning, and had already done something like this in the intro geography course the last couple of years, with weekly handouts to guide a group exercise related to the week’s reading and lecture material. Whereas before students just worked with whomever they sat next to, this semester I assigned them into groups of four in week 2, and this was to be their working group for the semester. The idea was that they would get to know each other a bit better this way, there would be some consistency from week to week, and they would have some responsibility toward their peers and not just to me or themselves as individual students in the class. I posted handouts with group work, usually discussion questions or real-world scenarios based on the reading, before class each week so they knew what to expect and what would be discussed, as well as to guide their reading. While this worked for some groups, for others it was a miserable failure. Some told me when the first short paper assignment was due in early October (in which they had to put a place of personal significance on a google map that I created for the class, and then use basic concepts such as scale, geographical imagination, and sense of place to explain the place in a 3-page paper), group members who had never been to class were suddenly emailing them and asking for help. The same occurred before the midterm exam. Multiple groups in class each week were missing 2 or more members, as a third of the class (about 25 students) just never showed up on a regular basis. I did a poll on the group work via Blackboard in late October and about half of those who participated stated that the group work was not helping them understand anything better, and that their groups were not functioning as intended. I could tell this was the case – limited discussion in class and within the groups, lack of comprehension of readings (mostly because only a few of them were doing the reading, which became apparent on exams), and grades on the first paper and the midterm that were lower than expected compared to past iterations of the class. One student even told me after one day when I just gave a lecture for the majority of class time and wrote on the whiteboard instead of using PowerPoint (I generally have very few slides anyway) that they got more out of the class that day than in any day interacting with group members. In the first week of November, I scrapped the group work and, save for one day when we did a role play discussion regarding the removal of a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, I stuck to lecturing and having some discussion for the rest of the semester.

So my first and perhaps last attempt at this kind of team-based learning in a large lecture course was a bust, resulting in no better performance on graded material or student understanding of the course concepts and cases than if I had done no group work, or stuck with the ‘work with the random people you’re sitting next to today’ approach I had used in the past. There are ways I could have done it differently or better perhaps — more engaging group work prompts, more use of technology, clearer instructions and articulation of the work’s purpose — but in the end I think the only thing that would have made it work for all (or at least more) of the students is to make every single thing every week worth points in the course final grade. But that is an untenable situation in a class of 70-plus when you have one graduate assistant and other assignments to mark, especially because my approach is not to offer marks for merely being present in the group on a given day. Students are present all the time, but many leave with blank sheets of paper, or have done no preparation and arrive expecting their peers to have done the work. And those who don’t show on a regular basis are not going to come and sit in a room for 80 minutes for 1 or 2 points out of 100. Almost 20 years of teaching 18-22 year olds has taught me this much. And in a group work setting, if you throw points and grades into the mix, the stakes ratchet up very quickly, both in terms of grades and emotional labor, and before you know it, you’re the referee in multiple in-group spats and imbalances.

To be perfectly honest and blunt, the major problem I faced this semester in my intro geography course, in my team-taught graduate course and second-year food course last winter, and increasingly in all of my courses across all levels for the last few years, is many students’ inability, unwillingness, and lack of time to read. My experiment in not having a textbook for the intro course this past fall was also, in retrospect, a failure. I had no central text on which to anchor the course, instead relying on readings ranging from long-form essays and reportage in The Guardian and The New York Times, academic journal articles, chapters from books written for a lay audience, blog posts and politically pointed essays by geographers, and even four short lectures on basic concepts that I had recorded myself a few years back and for which I also provide students transcripts. All of this is free, downloadable from Blackboard or available on the internet with no paywalls. And on the next-to-last day of the term, when I asked how many had read Rebecca Solnit’s long but detailed and moving 2016 piece about gentrification in San Francisco and the police killing of Alejandro Nieto, only 11 of the 45 or so assembled students indicated they had. There is no single reason why students don’t do the assigned reading, but the decision to not read, for whatever reason, has a very singular impact. They learn less than they should, and this lack of learning and engagement is reflected in lower grades, because what else am I to measure their performance by than their ability to recall, explain, and apply ideas, concepts, and details from the readings upon which I have built the structure of the class as a series of individual meetings and as an intellectual whole? This is not isolated to intro courses populated largely by 18-year-old first year students who have not yet figured out how to handle increased expectations or more difficult material compared to high school. I saw the same in my MA-level seminar in the winter, from grad students in both political science and history, in fourth-year senior seminars over the past several years, and from intermediate level classes, including a class on political economy theory where my hopes that students who simply do not want to read will be turned off and away by the fact that they really must do some reading to get at the intellectual history of political economy are always dashed.

In the end, it is easy to complain, to lament, and to gnash one’s teeth and rend clothing over the death of the intellect in a room of young adults who seem to never look up from their electronic devices and who cannot seemingly be bothered to read deeply, regularly, or out of curiosity. But then, every time I go to a meeting of more than four other faculty members, I am reminded that we are, many of us, pitiful hypocrites who have not read the agenda, let alone the minutes, who check our phones and email constantly, and who can’t arrive on time (something of which I am consistently guilty) or stay to the end. Then again, our relationship to all this as faculty is quite different from that of students. And I know my students read something. They read all day long — things posted to social media, all kinds of reporting on the internet, texts and emails from friends and family, probably a wide variety of ridiculous things on reddit, book-length fiction — but this does not easily or necessarily translate to comprehending and then using readings that are assigned in the context of a class and which may be challenging because of their content or format. Writing is a whole other challenge and source of frustration (but also, often, joy) beyond reading as one leads into and from the other. I am not entirely sure what to do about all this, but it’s not a single unitary problem and not something to be solved in my classes alone anyway. But next semester I have vowed in both my intro international relations and political geography courses to rely even less on technology, to return to textbooks (with some additional readings on the side), and to focus on making lecture time and presentation engaging, spirited, and interactive. And in general, I wish we placed more emphasis across the first year on reading. My students’ expectations are shaped well before they arrive on campus, and many of them seem to assume from the first day that reading is optional, and that class time will be spent watching a professor read dozens of slides to them, which they can download later anyway and then memorize for an exam. There is plenty of this on every campus from what I understand, so those expectations are not wildly out of whack, but it’s not the way I generally teach and does not, I think, emphasize the main skills I want students to take away, which is the ability to read across media and forms of writing, and to make useful comparisons and critiques building from concepts that bridge multiple examples. All of this should help them see themselves in the work they’re reading and doing, because if they don’t there is no iterative dialectical process of learning from and contributing to a larger body of knowledge and practice.