It has been raining for days. Storm Alberto is still sending bands of off and on drizzle towards Asheville which has kept people mostly inside. Needing a change of scenery, I headed out to one of our local coffee shops that serves as a remote office at least once a week. Standing in line, I see the headlines about flooding, the undoing of protections by the Department of Education, the fallout from racist tweets, and a variety of political updates as we head into midterm elections. With my coffee loyalty and debit cards in hand, I was ready to order my usual coffee when the customer in front of me finished stating his order and then turned towards me and said, ‘And whatever you would like to order.’
I was moved by this unexpected gesture of hospitality. I accepted his offer and thanked him, twice. And then because I am an anthropologist, I began to wonder what led to this freely given, brief invitation. What small exchanges can create opportunities for a change in approach to one’s day, other people, our work and tasks and whatever else we encounter? What creates an openness and desire to connect? While I might never see this person again, as he walked out the door moments later with his to-go cup, I did find myself in an expansive mood wanting to write about the power of small acts that reach out towards others. How might we incorporate small supporting elements in the Readers that would invite students and new faculty into engaging with the materials.
What comes to mind is a pilot project we implemented during the spring 2018 semester. Faculty developed brief preparation strategies in relation to a few core materials that were given to students in advance of the class period in which those readings were assigned. Taking 2-5 minutes to complete outside of class, these strategies, or PARs (Primed and Ready), were intended to help students explore their own knowledge or experience about a key concept or begin to focus on a micro-feature of the source through a more active, analytical lens.
For the creation stories read in HUM 124, one of the PARs that faculty could choose from had students take a few minutes to brainstorm ideas related to “myth.” Then after reading the narrative sources, students briefly compared their own ideas about myth in relation to the narratives. PARs developed to accompany readings by Thucydides asked students to outline or add missing arguments, explore the genre in relation to the historical context, or identify missing or biased perspectives. Faculty chose a preparation strategy that would enhance their own intended pedagogical focus for the class period to test out with students, and then gauged the impact of this guidance through their own observation of how the class went and student feedback.
While both faculty and students leaned positive in their feedback, the comments gathered from students are perhaps the most telling of the possibilities: ‘I felt more confident,’ ‘I felt prepared to participate in class discussion,’ and ‘I am shy, but this gave me a way to jump in.’ Based on qualitative feedback and statistics recorded as part of this on-the-ground experiment, PARs might be one way to create a positive invitation into the material that would motivate and prepare students for further and deeper exploration in class.
This pilot project was inspired by one of those shiny data points from the surveys. One of the questions that was asked to both faculty and students was about what students are asked to do with the Reader materials (or online moodle readings) in class. One of the highest ranked pedagogical strategies across all levels of the program is verbal discussion, both in small groups and with the entire class.
Among faculty, it is an anecdotal reality that discussion does not always go well. Sometimes discussion is not grounded in the readings, we are met with silent stares, groups are too quiet or have drifted to non-course related topics. These markers of unsuccessful engagement, even after interjecting questions or other more directive activities to try and steer students back on course, are numerous and frustrating. While some of this is because a certain percentage of the class has not done the readings, perhaps we have not clarified for students what pedagogical skills we are practicing through this shared form of inquiry and what are the markers of a ‘successful’ discussion. While I will return to skills in a separate blog post, the student survey pointed to another possible reason: Even when students report that they read the material, many are doing so passively without beginning to integrate, analyze or process the source that they are ‘running their eyes over.’
For those who like data: On a scale of often, sometimes, rarely, to never, in response to a question about their preparation habits for class, students report OFTEN reading the introduction to the reading (47.2%) and primary reading (46.6%), followed by watching video modules (38.7%) and taking notes (36.1%). Writing questions in advance to ask in class as part of discussion about the material ranked lowest [NEVER] (43%)/[OFTEN] (7.8%).
This data indicates a narrative of passive class preparation, with low percentages of active pre-class note taking or inquiry engaged in with regularity. The question is whether there is a way to encourage more constant, active preparation, but in a way that still supports the wide variety of discussion directions and activities faculty choose to implement in each of their individual sections.
The right balance of choice for faculty – “What guidance could I give students that aligns with my goals and increases productive participation in class?’ — and transparency for students – ‘What should I be doing with this reading (as a start)?’ — could create an invitation that supports our faculty and enhances learning processes. This does not mean that the subject of the PAR is the only topic in class, but instead it provides a platform that will assist students in being able to go further in their level of analysis under faculty guidance and in the company of others. If the experience is positive, students are motivated to repeat the process for other materials, creating good study habits along the way.
I think of these PARs, if we choose to implement them as part of the supporting materials in the Readers, as a version of the person in the coffee shop who unexpectedly bought me a coffee. PARs are a way to reach out to students and create a bridge into their initial engagement with the material in an informal, low-stakes, no wrong answers sort of way – a gift freely given. It is a form of intellectual hospitality that invites our students to the table, with the beginnings of some of their own analysis underway, to begin the harder work of building an inquiry together as a class community. I hope faculty who already utilize some form of a PAR-like strategy will share your wisdom with your colleagues as we think through the possibilities for supporting students through the revised Readers.
–Katherine C. Zubko