My Journey: The Education of an Un-Reformed Red Diaper Baby
By Daniel Weisman, Ph.D., M.S.W.Professor of Social Work
Rhode Island College School of Social Work
I was born into a politically active family, on an election day in the 1940s. My mother's first words after coming out of anesthesia, were "Did Dewey get in (as governor of N.Y.)?" [He had; two years later he lost the Presidential election to Truman, prompting the Chicago Tribune's infamous false headline.] An early memory is a conversation with my mother, when I was about five or six. We were on a bus or subway, en route to a demonstration for civil rights in Manhattan from our apartment in southeastern Brooklyn, and I asked why we were marching for Negroes. "Because we're Jews," was all she said. I knew my Jewish friends did not make this connection, but kept that as my own conundrum.
My parents met as union organizers and members of the Communist Party in 1941. They were both from Jewish families and raised us as secular, rather than religious, Jews, with an awareness of anti-Semitism and the imperative of social equality. There's a Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, "repairing the world through social action" (Aleph, 2004; Wikipedia, 2005), which they took as central to their identities and inculcated in us. When I got arrested and jailed in a 1967 episode of student activism, they were pleased but mildly disappointed that the demonstration was not a challenge to international capital, or even local power brokers. I didn't compare with an uncle who had defied HUAC in the 1950s, but I was on the right track. Later on in life, when I sued my local school district over prayer at my daughter's graduation ceremony and won a landmark Supreme Court decision (Lee v. Weisman, [USSC, 1992]), they were genuinely proud even though the robber barons were unscathed. It must have been the national stage that impressed them. (Front page of the N.Y. Times [Greenhouse, 1992] and a Crossfire debate with Pat Buchanan ain't chopped liver.) I had snagged the brass ring.
We grew up in a N.Y. City public housing project, and proud of it, because it represented social responsibility for basic human needs. In those days, the only stigma we knew was that our wealthier relatives owned their own homes in the suburbs, and we could not afford to. They demonstrably looked down on us. But among our peer group and in the larger neighborhood, the projects were not devalued, as they are now. In the 1950s and 1960s no one in our neighborhood had much money. Most of my friends' families didn't have TVs until the early 1960s; few had cars. We were among the first to have both.
There was not much diversity in our project: most of my friends were white, upward-looking working class, and Jewish. My parents bristled at my friends' racism, and forbade epithets in our home, a source of ridicule for me in the street. To my credit, when I had to choose between peer pressure and my family's values, I embraced the latter, often earning ostracism in my peer group.
The project had a community center, loosely modeled on the settlement house concept (Infed, 2005), that eventually became a focal point of my development and identity. During the late 1950s, my elementary and junior high school years, after school and during the summers, I was involved in organized programs with foci on social and economic integration, progressive social change, democratic participation and responsible human growth. The Center was networked with many of the large social movements of the era, exposing me to numerous civil rights and peace marches and demonstrations. I was encouraged to expand my consciousness beyond my immediate experiences. The political motto, "Think globally, act locally," was a guiding life framework during my developmental years. In 1958, the Center purchased a summer camp in the Catskills, which I attended as a camper and, during college, as a counselor. [I met my life partner in the summer camp (Twin Link Camp, later Camp Hurley) in 1967; our children attended the camp until it closed in 1987.]
In that my adolescence and young adult years were spent in Center programs, as a "student" and later as a leader, much of what I bring to my teaching has its roots there: democratic participation, group process, and respect for human diversity in the context of social interaction rather than segregation. A lesson I carry from the 60s is that without integration with respect for difference, individual human growth is stymied and meaningful social progress (e.g., equal opportunity, economic security, world peace) is next to impossible because what little power that can be marshaled by non-dominant group members is not allowed to coalesce. Also, social movements' internal strength requires social capital, "the norms and networks that enable collective action" (World Bank, 2005), which can be enriched by way of diversity. I carried this notion, strengthening groups and group processes through supportive examination of diversity among group members, into my social work practice and teaching career.
In 1960, I moved on to high school, where I found a different cohort of like-minded activists, some of whom were also involved in the Center. We "marched with Martin" (literally) and boycotted "duck and cover" shelter drills. Vietnam came along, and we got involved in the anti-war movement. I went to City College, rather then nearby Brooklyn College, because I valued the greater student diversity and activism at "City."
Of course, like all young adults, eventually I needed to choose a life course. I had plenty of opportunity because the City University of New York was free to city residents at that time (rescinded in the 1970s under the leadership of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller), so I carried no debt after college. In fact, although City was a commuter school, many of us chose to treat college as a growth phase rather than career preparatory step: I was a history major with a C+ average when I graduated in 1968. I knew that I would pursue social work at the graduate level, because all my role models in the Center were social workers, but studied history as an undergraduate to improve my understanding of social contexts.
After college I enrolled in the social work graduate program in community organizing, at the University of Michigan, and in 1970 I began my career in the anti-poverty program in Kentucky. Seven years later, I entered the social work doctoral program at Rutgers University, concentrating on policy analysis and social research, to buttress my social work practice skills, while maintaining full time employment as executive director of a planning and organizing agency in a New York suburban community.
I arrived at Rhode Island College in the fall of 1981 and rose through the ranks from assistant to full professor. For about three years in the mid-1980s, I also served as the first coordinator of the College's Labor Studies Program. For nine of my 24 years at RIC, I have chaired the undergraduate social work program. Otherwise, I have been a full time social work professor, teaching mostly BSW courses, and occasionally in the MSW Program.
As a professor and academic advisor of social work and labor studies majors, I encountered many older adult learners, and quickly experienced them as resources who could enrich the classroom process if given sufficient support and encouragement. A challenge was to promote mutually beneficial interactions across the wide age and experiential range that characterized some of my classes. One eye-opening example occurred in my first year, when I used the Cuban Missile Crises and an example of "brinksmanship," a public policy concept I was trying to explain. The under-25-year-old students had no knowledge of that coming-of-age episode for me (and about five older students in the room), so I encouraged one of the older students to explain it, and share how that world-stage event impacted him, his family and his life. More learning occurred in that ten minutes of unplanned interaction than any erudite lecture I could have given on brinksmanship. And the learning was reciprocal, as I gleaned both an insight into classroom group process and an awareness of the gap between my life experiences and those of my younger students.
Now, 24 years later, I must continue to approach each course as a new learning opportunity for me. If I allow myself to become complacent as an instructor, I will neglect to perceive evidence of how well my teaching objectives are being implemented. Also, I've observed that as the environment around us changes, the students whom we encounter change. Consequently, I must continually test most of my assumptions about my pedagogy. Otherwise stated, the following discussion is a self-reflection of my evolution as a work in progress.
My Continuing Education as a Professor
My first teaching experiences were as a substitute or guest lecturer in undergraduate social work classes in the early 1970s, essentially one-day stands. I came, I lectured, I left: I felt good about myself. In 1975, about five years into my social work career, I was asked to teach a week-long class on community organizing at a national mental health organization's staff conference (as a stand-in for my boss). I prepared myself entirely, with both content and delivery methods, and had a seismic rush that rivaled my greatest successes in social work practice. I really got a thrill out of teaching, and seeing people learn because of my efforts. My student evaluations at the end of the week amounted to about a B. I was expecting much higher ratings and could not quite figure out how my teaching could feel so good, appear to be working for at least some of the students, and garner mediocre student ratings. I attended the organization's next few national staff meetings but was not asked to teach at any of them.
At about the same time, I was a field instructor for several New York area social work schools. In social work, this is an unpaid, voluntary but highly valued professional activity. I took the role seriously and gave my students much more attention than I ever received during my own internships. My model was what I would have wanted from my field supervisors. My students seemed to appreciate the support I gave them, but to resent the demands I made of them, especially regarding their writing and oral communication skills: these were my agenda items, but not theirs or their schools'. There was a lesson brewing, if only I could figure it out. Similarly, my mixture of social work and social justice did not resonate with some my students, especially those who aspired to work exclusively with individuals and families, the so-called clinical side of the profession.
In the spring semester of 1981, I was hired as an adjunct professor for the MSW program at Adelphi University, for which I was serving as a field instructor. I did it for the money and the experience, not the career shift. It was an off-campus course held in a rural part of New York State. I had to fly to the location on a four- or eight-seater operated by a small, family-owned commercial airline. Students were highly motivated, traveling at least an hour from their jobs and homes, twice a week, to take MSW courses. We hit it off very well and the class was a successful experience: I followed my lesson plans very closely; each class meeting was lively; and, according to their final papers, students appeared to learn the material.
My ratings were about B+, well below my impression of how well the course had gone. Student comments indicated they had benefited from the course and appreciated my efforts. There was almost no negative feedback, yet my numerical scores were disappointing because the experience had been so rewarding for me.
The school that had hired me was satisfied. No one from the school discussed my ratings with me, but I was assured that I would be called again when they needed another adjunct instructor. Two themes emerged from these early teaching experiences: my love of teaching and the students' course assessments did not coincide with mine. In sum, it was better for me than for them.
I wondered whether students felt I inappropriately shared my enthusiasm for social change. After all, teaching an entire course provided an opportunity to unite my activist roots with classroom instruction. As we would study a topic, I would editorialize about its implications for poverty, inequality, opportunity structures, discrimination and policy choices made and missed. Maybe I had overdone it. This was 1981 and the students were markedly more conservative than my generation, selecting social work more for its counseling and client reform role than its social change tradition (Specht & Courtney, 1994). There was no evidence one way or the other, but I was beginning to formulate a balance among covering required material, exposing students to values options as future practitioners, and including all students in the educational experience.
Meanwhile, I passed my doctoral qualifying exams and became ABD. A pivotal time in my career confronted me. I could continue directing the community-based social service agency, or move on to another area of social work practice. My Ph.D. studies were a hobby: an opportunity to learn new skills and build credentials for larger-scale administrative work. Up to this point, teaching had been a diversion, and I had learned that I had a lot to learn as a teacher. If I wanted to finish my Ph.D., it could mean changing jobs, because the demands of conducting research and writing a dissertation did not appear to fit with the responsibilities of an agency director and, with six- and eight-year-old daughters, I could not afford to become a full-time student. It was time to move on in my career - but in what direction?
An advertisement in the New York Times announced a vacancy in the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College; PhD preferred; ABD required. I replied and got the appointment, beginning in the fall, 1981 semester. This occurred during the School's largest growth period, as it was transitioning from a BSW concentration in the Sociology Department to a combined BSW and MSW Program with school status and its own dean. I arrived two months after the MSW Program graduated its first class, and found myself surrounded by young, recent Ph.D.s and a few ABDs just starting out as teachers. I had five pre-tenure years to complete my degree and establish myself as a competent instructor.
RIC is a teaching college with faculty on their own tenure-line track, so for my cohort of social work professors who arrived in the early and mid-1980's, it has been a group journey, which made the "learning-how-to-teach" process a social, rather than an entirely individual experience. Most students commute to classes, work at least 20 hours per week, and are the first in their families to attend college. The parallels to my own educational background are striking.
In this environment, my old struggles with teaching re-emerged, but I had the benefit of colleagues who faced the same issues and valued good teaching. Together we worked on the challenges of adult education as we all tried to find our individual styles of engagement and interaction with students. Those who developed more effective methods led in-service-trainings for the rest of us: a sort of round-robin of group skill development. This process is possible if competence is not viewed as a competitive sport, but beneficial to the collective enterprise. Conflict thrives in our unit (after all this is academia), but the common goal of high-quality teaching remains a central purpose.
Parenthetically, those of us who came to the School of Social Work (as well as across the College) in the 1980s are now the "old guard," as a cadre of younger faculty has replaced the older among us who have moved on. The culture of the School (and the College), by necessity, is changing, but our commitment to mutually-supportive teaching remains a center post of our work. For example, two faculty members from the School were encouraged by our respective chairs to apply for NECIT fellowships, at a cost of load credits to the School, and to share their experience with the full faculty.
When I began teaching at RIC, student evaluations of my teaching averaged in the same B range I had earned earlier, but an upward trend emerged. I now receive student assessments of about A- but continue to experience an occasional B- as well as high A's (based on a five-point scale that students complete for each class). B- scores reflect classes in which I fail to connect with students, although they usually gain the requisite knowledge or skills.
My Assessment of my Teaching Experiences
Having reviewed my student evaluation data over time, I've come to the conclusion that student ratings usually say something important about my teaching. The possibilities include perceived grading fairness/generosity, no doubt. Based on some analyses conducted by department chairs in the School of Social Work, there is evidence of a positive correlation between students' grades and their ratings of instructors. But some of our "stingiest" professors have the highest student ratings and vice versa, so there must be other factors. To head off students' misperceptions about my grading, I account for every point they earn and lose, on every item I grade, a labor-intensive process of commenting respectfully and in detail on their papers.
Another possible meaning of student evaluations is popularity and reputation (Haskell, 1997). But I, along with most of the professors in my School, have experienced variance in student ratings, both within semester (e.g., across different sections of the same course) and over time (e.g., across the same course in different semesters). Some of us have consistently high student evaluations. Most, like myself, have experienced patterns of mostly high ratings with an occasional blemish.
Student evaluations of faculty (SEF) are used across academia for several purposes, including tenure and promotion decisions, arguably the least appropriate application (Haskell, 1997). But SEF "can be very useful instructionally, and when used in conjunction with other methodologically sound evaluation procedures and criteria, it can assist in informing an institution when a faculty does not pass muster as an effective teacher" (Haskell, 1997, footnote 7). Some research shows that small differences in SEF scores (i.e., several decimal points) across instructors or course sections is meaningless, but larger differences do correlate with student learning and students' retrospective evaluation of faculty effectiveness years after graduation (McKeachie, 1996). There appears to be consensus that SEF is most effective for improving teaching if reviewed with other faculty members in a supportive environment, for the purpose of improving the collective product, rather than singularly by each instructor (McKeachie & Kaplan, 2001; Haskell, 1997; McKeachie, 1996).
I've come to the conclusion that while I usually feel confident that students have accomplished course objectives, their assessments of my teaching generally reflect how well I made the material important to them, and relevant to their motivations for selecting this major. To me, this is more important than course goals, because social work is an interactive discipline: practitioners use their interpersonal skills to manage social change. My mission in every course is to engage both their minds and their passions, otherwise they may not internalize the material sufficiently to use it in their practice. Inclusiveness, the involvement of every student, especially the non-traditional group members, is an essential component of this objective. Any student's non-participation is a warning sign of likely disengagement; relative quiet by minority group members or older students denies the group valuable perspectives they know are in the room.
Given my strengths (e.g., extensive social work experience, commitment to the values of my profession, and similarity to students in terms of economic origin) and weaknesses (differences in educational background, gender, age and religion, and having been raised under the traditional model of power-based authoritative class instruction), each class is a moving target for me. Early in the semester, I've got to find where most of the students are with regard to the course content, connect with them at their beginning level of investment in the material, and move with them over the next ten-or-so weeks to reach the course's exit expectations. For some of my colleagues, this process has been mastered more successfully. For me, if I miss the first step by week three, I'm playing catch-up all semester, jeopardizing students' personal relationships with the material while trying to salvage their intellectual mastery.
Inclusiveness is not always easy to measure. Besides cultural differences among students with regard to becoming involved and expressing that involvement, inclusiveness can take different forms, even for the same student. It is a challenge to monitor levels of involvement without disrupting course process. Over time, I've come to the conclusion that my best path is to offer as many inclusive opportunities as I can arrange within each course. I try to use and build on engagement methods that resonate most effectively with any given group and bring into class some aspect of my social justice orientation to social work, as long as I allow students to embrace their own reasons for selecting this field. For example, when theories related to the topic of the immigration experience are examined in my Human Behavior class, I invite students to share their own stories and/or those told by first generation family members, as ways to illuminate and test those theories under review. I believe students' course evaluations usually capture how well I've accomplished all these tasks.
Each of my classes is a unique combination of people, develops its own internal structure, and follows a version of a life cycle. I'll elaborate on this observation, but I need to note that I begin every semester by trying to fill in the blanks on these three continua (participants, structure and life cycle). If I can figure out these dimensions for each group of people, I can bring the requisite materials to them in ways that have the best chance to capture the students' enthusiasm. Usually, evidence that most of them find their voices is an indicator that I've connected with them, but not always.
Typically, class members will occupy several roles, e.g., quiet note taker, active respondent, challenger, clique-leader. These roles break into three general categories: constructive, distractive or irrelevant with regard to class goal achievement. Constructive roles include activities that promote conversation, offer interpretations or applications of the material, or take appropriate risks. Distractive roles misdirect class energy. Examples include withdrawal from discussions, calling attention to one's self, introducing extraneous factors, participating in side discussion, continuing class discussions outside of the classroom, coming late or leaving early. Irrelevant actions are contributions that neither promote nor inhibit progress, like comments that are not related to the discussion but do not interrupt it.
As an instructor, I attempt to reward what I see as positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors. I respond to irrelevant actions on the basis of how I interpret them: innocent and infrequent vs. malicious and common. For example, sometimes comic relief serves a purpose. I also monitor the patterns of roles, with an eye on encouraging as many students as possible to play constructive roles, as way to involve them and learn what material or processes attract them.
In my experience, sub-groups of students develop their own informal leaders - individuals who wield influence over the others, and can be positive or negative opinion makers. I try to expand the number of students who become leaders, to democratize the class and to give everyone the experience of exercising leadership. Sometimes I model this role, and then steer students into the behavior I just demonstrated. I might stop the class and explicate what has occurred and why it's important. Other times, I might meet with individual students about their work in the course, or for academic advising, and offer them ways of taking more initiative, not just speaking.
For the most part, our students have experienced school just as I did: the powerful and knowledgeable lecture the powerless and uneducated. They've internalized the passive role of note-taking and regurgitating, suppressing any sense of their own worth, knowledge, wisdom or experience. In this process, they may "learn" information that they retain long enough to repeat in an assignment or exam, but the extent to which they engage with, test and use the material is limited until their involvement extends beyond the cognitive level to their own experiences, values and beliefs. Democratic processes as mechanisms for delivering course content empower students to contribute to the class, and the lecture becomes a dialog, a recognized effective adult education method (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). They are still responsible for the material, but in my experience their understanding is enhanced.
Many groups go through stages by which the members merge into a group, function for some time as a group, and dissolve back to being individuals: formation, working effectively and ending (Corey & Corey, 1997). In these phases, group members develop roles and norms that make collective action possible. Classes can follow this process if allowed to. Over the 14 weeks of a semester, I try to form my classes into groups and lead them through the stages of group life. I begin by setting expectations for safety and confidentiality of class discussions. Then I ask where they are with regard to the course material, a fundamental principle of social work practice (start where the client is). I ask who has had what experiences with topics covered by the course, outside the client role. I explicitly respect their experiences and connect them with the course they're about to take. I encourage each of them to find some kind of personal connection.
The last thing I do on day one is review the syllabus, because I'm trying to find their agendas rather than imposing mine, although there is some of that too. This is not to imply a negotiations process. Rather, once I know where at least some of the students are, I can highlight and interpret appropriate aspects of the syllabus as I introduce the course and its requirements, indicating opportunities for both co-teaching and co-learning. Coincidentally, I often find myself acknowledging course content in which little interest is expressed, relying on humor ("I was a math major in college….for two weeks" - the truth) or explaining why the material is required.
In the ensuing weeks, I try to observe the group's developmental stage. Each class meeting, I use some time to get students talking to each other about some aspect of the day's topic. It may be a provocative question (from me or them), an ethical dilemma, an invitation to share their own experiences, or a problem-solving exercise, rather than just lecturing the answers. These delivery methods are more demanding to me as an instructor in comparison to lectures, but because students become involved as co-teachers/learners there is greater likelihood that they will comprehend the material as a result of interacting with it. For this to succeed, I structure some class time to progressing the group through stages, so that students are accustomed to working together.
For students, this changes the class dynamic from passive note-taking to participating, and consequently to sharing a piece of one's self. Another way I accomplish this is through the use of structured assignments and shared experiences that bring the members together to function as a group. The most explicit example is in my research class. If there is a course that mitigates against widespread participation and sharing, it is research. I've developed a class exercise that shares ownership of the course: a class-managed survey of the School. Anchoring the stages of the survey in the course purposes, I lead the class through the full process of formulating a data collection instrument, distributing the questionnaire to all students in the School, encouraging a high return rate by announcing the survey in their other classes, and analyzing the data.
Each semester, students in the course decide what the survey will examine. Topics may include a satisfaction survey, conditions of the learning environment, requirements for admission and/or graduation, field placements, and the larger college environment. I try to get the class to agree on a topic, preferably something which captures their interest. From there on, they interview their colleagues in order to identify factors to include in their survey (a needs assessment), compose the questions, and design the structure and appearance of the instrument. When results come back, I enter most of the data into a data management file (i.e., SPSS), leaving some to be entered by the class. [Data entry is not a course requirement but it's important that they see how data files are constructed.]
On data analysis day, the class meets in a "smart room" or computer lab and everyone gets to enter a line of data. Then we do data analyses together. I've done this process twice with excellent results: students are interested and entertained enough to remain engaged through almost all the data analysis steps - they tend to phase out when we get to multi-variate analysis. This is a substantial improvement over their passive resistance to even talking about means and standard deviations; now they care about these statistics because they want to know what respondents thought about the topics on the survey.
This activity is messy: classes may become boisterous and unruly. Everyone is thinking something about the product and I have to help the more reticent members get their points in. Someone emerges as computer-talented and designs the appearance of the instrument, with everyone's input. I let them run the show for some of the time, as long as they're constructively engaged and I can afford the time. This is one example of structuring classes into groups, and promoting a healthy group life cycle. I'm often limited by my own imagination and inhibitions more than by the course material.
Diversity and Non-traditional Students
The students at RIC remain primarily white, Catholic, female and young, although the College has made admirable strides in diversifying its student body. For the most part, the students have come close to approximating the state's demographics. In any given social work class, about 2/3 will be white, female Catholics, 20-25 years of age. The remaining 1/3 will be some mix of older white Rhode Islanders, African-Americans, Hispanics and recent immigrants. The latter two groups may include people whose origins are in Central or South America, the Caribbean, Africa or Southeast Asia. One or two men will round out the enrollment. My challenge is to create a safe climate whereby students learn from each other and explore their own identities, because social work emphasizes cultural competence, i.e., knowledge of human diversity and skill in applying that knowledge (Johnson & Rhodes, 2005).
As a white, Jewish, 60ish male, I am almost always different from everyone else. Even more exotic, I'm from New York City. This has worked as an asset for me, because I cannot be viewed as a member of any of their groups. If I can talk passionately about discrimination their own groups have experienced, and the strengths their groups have displayed over the years, it gives them permission to express pride in their group identities and appreciation for the other groups in the room. My background as a history major in college and a participant in liberation movements of the 50s, 60s and 70s contributes to my knowledge about many groups' historic struggles for civil rights and equal opportunity, but anyone can easily get the facts about these historic events. Sometimes, students are less aware than I about the discrimination their families may have faced over the years. For example, Irish Catholic students are usually unaware of virulent hatred their great grandparents experienced in New England. I can also portray myself as relatively privileged in relation to them (middle-aged white male) but non-dominant as I am not Protestant (Queralt, 1996). Again, this is just an advantage for me, not a requisite.
Sometimes one or several students in a class will have only rudimentary skills in English, but usually students get to my classes with sufficient competence to do the assignments and earn respectable grades. For those with limited English skills, I allow them to find translators who can help them prepare their graded submissions to me. If this is not possible, they may need to withdraw from my class and invest more time in communicating in English. For all ESL social work students, I contract with the student to correct their writing, subtracting points only if the writing will affect their ability to document their work in practice. I announce in class that every student with a communication issue, such as language, health, writing, note-taking or testing, should meet with me privately because everyone is valued and I want to accommodate every person's learning situation. I also reference the School's accommodation policy. Those who respond to this invitation are given appropriate referrals (e.g., the College's Writing Center) and, if necessary, alternative methods for me to evaluate their command of the material. My guiding criterion is whether they can perform adequately as social work practitioners.
I give quizzes in all my instructional courses, explicitly to get the students to do the assigned reading. I explain that I'm competing for their limited time, and quizzes have proven an effective way to get them to prepare for my classes. I make the quizzes easy enough to generate high grades if one has done the reading, but too difficult to guess or intuit correct answers. Thus, I market quizzes as rewards for preparing for class, and students usually recognize this as true. If any students can document testing barriers, I negotiate individual arrangements with them.
Inclusiveness in the Context of these Experiences
My educational unit, the School of Social Work, consists of 15 full time faculty and more than 250 students. There is sufficient diversity among both groups - students and faculty - to generate multiple models of inclusive teaching and learning. Also, social work, as a professional educational program, may structure some classroom expectations and exercises that affect inclusive processes differently than other academic disciplines. What follows is my interpretation of my teaching and learning experiences.
My combination of strengths has led me to visualize a metaphoric three-legged stool: my enthusiasm for radical social change (passions leg), my view of social work classes as social groups (group process leg), my understanding of how adults learn (adult education leg). This third leg (adult education) is relevant to all professors; the other two legs reflect my characteristics, and will vary for all who teach in higher education.
Here are the general lessons I've
gathered from my experiences:
- Work to create a climate in the college whereby faculty progress in teaching, service and scholarship is a cooperative, rather than competitive process. Allow different disciplines to develop criteria for the three evaluation categories that are appropriate to their area of work. In social work, like other professions, practice is the purpose of education, so scholarship and service in our unit include faculty work that informs and/or advances practice, rather than the traditional narrow rule of peer reviewed publications. If the school's mission is teaching, faculty evaluation criteria should include scholarship and service that enhance teaching.
- Think about the power imbalance between yourself, the professor, and your students. They are very aware of this reality, and cannot be fooled into thinking you're one of them. So, gratuitous humor or self-disclosure (e.g., family stories), may be experienced as impositions, and abuse of power. I began my teaching career with an overbearing application of jokes and attempts to be entertaining. Some students appreciated the break from boredom; others resented the distractions. I soon recognized that humor is fine if it facilitates delivery of content, but we are not stand-up comics. Similarly, we can easily abuse power by promoting political agendas or social issues outside the purview of courses.
- Figure out the legs of your teaching/learning stool - what strengths and limitations do you bring into the classroom, and what methods might work best for you?
My Three-Legged Stool
Adult Education Leg
- Begin where the students are in relation to the course material; what they have experienced, what courses they may have taken related to the topic, what they know and perceive about the subject. The goal is to get them to connect their own life experiences and interests with the course.
- Periodically during a course, have students "check in" with observations of how the material supports or contradicts their experiences, interests and understandings. The goal here is reconnection and reminding students how the course fits with their interests. Don't overdo this - no more than once per month.
- As course themes are covered, continually ask students how their experiences or previous knowledge support or challenge what's being covered.
- Classes should be safe places: students should be free to express themselves without fear that their words will be repeated outside of class, because student-centered adult education encourages students to voluntarily share information about themselves.
- Each of us comes with our own passions. The question is whether and how to apply them to our teaching. If they are relevant to course purposes, think about ways they can support your teaching, as well as how they can be distractions.
- Students have the right to their own passions, and to their self determination. They need to understand how our commitments relate to course expectations, and where they are free to disagree. For example, I invite students with Republican leanings to either self-disclose or not, and I share examples of poor social policies initiated by Democrats. I clearly label examples as my own take on things or as mandates of the profession. I encourage students to explore ways that their interests can interact with practice principles.
- Many of my experiences as a social work practitioner have been as a community organizer/social advocate. I let them know, with various kinds of examples, that other practice platforms (e.g., clinical case work, group work, administration) generate different kinds of examples, and invite examples from their field placements and previous human service work experiences.
Group Process Leg
- If you wish your classes to function as groups, give them time and structure activities to form into groups. This means helping students play leadership roles, and spreading those roles as widely as possible.
- While lecturing is convenient and efficient in terms of time, group processing of course content may encourage students to interact with the material. I try to develop group projects whereby students actually apply, rather than just talk about, the thematic learning objectives of each course.
- Observe how students relate to each other - the patterns of leadership and influence, inclusion and exclusion, relationships among them. Use your insights about their group functioning to include those who are more withdrawn or overlooked by the more active members.
- Give students an opportunity to debrief at the end of the semester - to terminate as members of a group. This need not be a morbid process, rather they should talk about how the group process and the course in general helped them gain some mastery over the subject matter. For the instructor, this can be a chance to empower students to find their own most effective styles of learning. It will also help you figure out your own most effective teaching styles.
Work in Progress
My final thought about inclusive teaching is that it is a process, rather than a skill we master. I say this because each class is a different group of people, or a different set of circumstances. Student populations are always changing. The institutional environment is in flux. These variations define the classroom situation. Effective inclusive strategies will change as well. The key factor, in my experience, is to attend to the teaching-learning process rather then singularly on presentation of course content, and to listen carefully to students' words: what are they trying to tell you?
A second theme of my teaching experience, perhaps more salient than my own pedagogical evolution, is the environment in which teaching and learning occurs. In my department and School, as well as throughout most units of Rhode Island College, teaching is treated as a group enterprise, rather than each instructor's unique challenge. Throughout my stay in the School of Social Work at RIC, faculty members have shared their successes and sought consultation with difficult challenges. This is possible because tenure and promotion are not competitive or quota-driven. Everyone is on their own tenure line. The cooperative environment is reinforced by the RIC faculty union and the contract that guides many institutional procedures, including annual reviews, tenure and promotion. An additional factor is the absence of a merit system, a relevant factor because merit awards tend to be competitive rather than based on thresholds of teaching, scholarship and service.
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