academic portfolio & musings of a PhDad on movies, fatherhood, social justice, and everything in between
On the first day of class, I like to take some time to define the conceptual framework from which I aim to operate, not only within the classroom, but every moment of my life. Considering the amount of time students will have to spend with me during an entire semester, I prefer to begin with information that will help build a relationship between us characterized by trust, respect, humility, and consideration rather than specific course policies (which, while important, can wait until the second day of class). I frame the particulars of a term’s content – Chinese Cinema, for example – not as the end-all goal to master and memorize, but rather the vehicle through which more important life-long skills and abilities may be developed and honed. Developing the powers of expression and analysis, being open to new experiences and cultures, learning to systematically improve their own writing skills through specific lines of action and reflection, and being open to learning in any situation are critical educational goals, regardless of the students’ personal or occupational ambitions.
The most effective form of teaching takes place when the instructor leads first and foremost by example. It would be disingenuous of me to tout the importance of making an impact on students’ lives, my passion for teaching, or the importance of empowerment, if I only expressed those sentiments within the confines of a classroom. To be a truly effective instructor, I believe those values need to carry over into every aspect of one’s life. One way I put this ideal into practice is by actively trying to operate in a mode of learning. A mode of learning acknowledges education not as a one-off goal, but a lifelong process that requires, among other things, humility, respect, flexibility, open-mindedness, patience, self-reflection, and perseverance. It allows learning to take place at any time and from any source. It sees the teacher-student relation as a two-way channel that allows teaching and learning to flow both ways, as opposed to a hierarchical one between Learned and Ignorant.
One concrete way in which I make this mode of learning clear to my students is through a discussion of what it means to learn in action. That is, you come up with a plan and enact it without necessarily having thought every single thing through because you understand the best way to reveal an idea’s problems is to put it into action. However, in order to find those problems, it is crucial to have an open and frank discussion about how things went with those whom the plan affects the most. Finally, you adjust and fine-tune the original plan based on the collective learning before trying it out again. When everyone shares in the spirit of learning, everyone comes out of the process with a better understanding of not only the idea’s objectives, but about their own learning process as well.
I actively model learning in action within my classroom through a constant effort to improvepedagogically. When the pop quizzes I had established partly as an incentive for attendance did not seem to provide much in the way of effective learning, I decided to try something new. In order to “un-pop” the quiz, I asked students to take a few minutes to look through their notes and come up with a number of questions to exchange with another student. After taking some time to answer the questions on their own, the quiz partners were required to discuss any remaining questions they had with each other and correct any mistakes. Directly following this exercise, I asked students for feedback on the activity itself, asking in particular how they felt it differed from more traditional quizzes, making it clear that their responses mattered and would likely affect the structure of future quizzes. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with several students specifically pointing out how removing the pressure of getting the grade or having the “right” notes allowed them to focus on actual learning instead.
By trying a new pedagogical approach and – more importantly – engaging my students in a discussion of its strengths and weaknesses, I’m able to improve my own teaching skills while my students become more personally invested in their own learning in real, practical, ways. Many undergraduates seem to be so conditioned to see “learning” as simply going to class, earning good grades, and receiving a diploma, that they never stop to truly consider how it is that they learn most effectively. In order to further develop the ability to reflect on their own learning, one of my favorite final assignments requires students to look back on and critically interrogate all of the work they submitted throughout the term. They are required to identify and discuss trends, changes, weaknesses, and improvements in both their analytical and English composition skills, as well as provide a critical discussion of the assignments’ pedagogical effectiveness. My emphasis on self-reflection helps students attain a better understanding of where they stand in their own educational journey and what steps they need to take to advance their own understanding.
Learning is most effective when one is given the repeated opportunity to reflect and apply lessons learned onto the next objective. There are several concrete ways in which I bring these concepts into the classroom to try and achieve my intended learning outcomes. Contrary to the general tendency of humanities courses requiring several 5-10-page papers or one major 10-15-page term paper on which the bulk of a student’s final grade ultimately depends, I prefer to assign smaller-in-scope weekly assignments that allow me to provide immediate, more detailed and differentiated feedback with specific ways in which each student can improve their work, as well as a gradual increase in the quality of work I expect throughout the semester.
My regular in-class assessments and end-of-term evaluations show a successful and positive learning outcome for a diverse group of learners, regardless of their age, socio-economic background, or family history of university attendance. It is especially encouraging to receive comments that describe the students’ own advancement in understanding their personal learning process as well as their excitement in doing so. One comment from end-of-term evaluations stated: “The most awesome class I’ve ever taken! We learned about our subject and learned about the action of learning itself! Professor Rezaie is definitely my favorite professor I’ve had in my college career!” While I more than welcome the first and third sentences, it is the middle one’s sense of excitement that thrills me the most. The action of learning is ignored much too frequently in the classroom. Educators and legislators often bemoan students’ challenges in the classroom but do not take the time to empower students with the appropriate tools for their own self-assessment.
Teaching should be about empowerment as much as learning specific content. One of the most important things I can empower my students to do is take ownership of their own education. Too often, education is discussed as something one either does or does not have, as though it’s a final destination instead of a journey: you’re not educated until you are. When all is said and done I hope that, at the very least, students leave my class thinking about education and learning as a life-long process that extends beyond the confines of the classroom walls and in which they should feel compelled to take a more active role. It is an attitude I model in my own teaching through regular evaluations and fine-tuning of course assignments and expectations in close consultation and collaboration with the students themselves. My students’ enthusiastic and thoughtful evaluations have been the most encouraging signs of the effectiveness of my approach.