Kristopher Burrell, Assistant Professor
Behavioral and Social Sciences
A couple of years ago I attended a conference in New Jersey on how to become a more effective college teacher, led by Dr. Ken Bain and his wife. For three days in the summer of 2014, I, along with 75 other college professors from around the world, listened to one another, shared with each other, and began to put into practice our ideas for improving our courses in order to deepen our students’ learning experiences. We heard presentations from leading instructors in their fields who had a track record of success creating inviting learning environments that fostered more critical thinking, more student participation, and clearer objectives for their students, as well as themselves. There were many things that I learned over the course of those three days. There were also many ways the lessons that were imparted manifested themselves at the time, and in the two years since. Of the many things that I took from that conference, however, one of the words that really struck me as a way to improve my teaching and my students’ learning was the word “transparency.”
One thing that all of the conference participants were challenged to do was to articulate the underlying assumptions that girded our courses. We had to spell out explicitly what ideological frameworks we worked from and why; which pedagogical theories and techniques we used and why; what we wanted our students to learn and why; and why we wanted our students to read, write, and think in particular ways or formats. This was all well and good, but it was surprisingly difficult for me to do. This was not because I had not thought or did not think deeply about the frameworks for the courses I teach or what I hoped that students learn from the assignments I give, but in part because I have been teaching in my subject area for such a long time that my assumptions are natural to me. I use certain methods because I know they work, and I know they work because I use them. It is a bit of a tautology, but it is true.
What really surprised me during the conference, however, was what we were asked next: how much of this stuff do we reveal to our students explicitly: in our syllabi, in our assignment instructions, or verbally throughout the semester? And for the things that we decide not to tell our students why we do the things we do in our courses, what are the reasons why we choose not to tell those things to our students? Do we have a solid pedagogical reason? Could we perhaps enhance or enrich our students’ learning process if we were more transparent with them about where we are coming from ideologically, pedagogically, or personally?
I really had to think about whether or not I was inadvertently making all of our lives more difficult by not being as open as possible about why I taught my classes or structured my assignments or acted in class in the ways that I did. The experience was sobering. What I decided was I could improve my students’ learning by being more transparent as to my objectives, assumptions, and preferences within my courses. I resolved to be more transparent in a couple of ways: I changed the format of my syllabus to create a course description of my own, in addition to the college catalog’s description, that plainly explained to students what my particular interests in U. S. History were, and I invited students to take an intellectual journey with me for a few months by remaining in the course.
Something else that I did, specifically in my writing-intensive sections, was to explain the reasons why I required the essay conventions that I do for my formal writing assignments. I divided the formatting requirements into three categories: 1) general conventions that apply to most formal academic writing: things such as double-spacing the essay, having 1-inch margins, and being sure to spell-check and proofread essays before turning them in to me; 2) conventions that are particular to formal writing in history: citing other author’s work according to the Chicago Manual of Style; and finally 3) conventions that are my personal preferences: things such as requiring 12-point, Times New Roman font throughout an essay, requiring a cover page for essays in a particular format, and requiring the essay be stapled in the upper left corner. I had to come to grips with the fact that some of the things I used to consider universal academic conventions because it had been how I have been taught to write were actually just the personal preferences of my professors, which I had now adopted. I was also reassured that having personal preferences was perfectly fine, but why not tell students that the reason why you wanted something done a certain way was because you liked to see it that way or read it way?
The experience was cathartic for me in small, but important ways. Just as important, making my intentions, goals, and rationales more transparent reduced students’ questions and I hope have contributed to students writing better essays and demystifying the experience of doing formal writing for my history courses.