Sitting in the student seats

I’m one of those professors who likes to chat with students before class, about whatever. I feel like easy conversations about weekends, holiday plans, sports, trips, TV shows, whatever, can set a more conversational tone for free-flowing in-class discussions that follow, especially if the extra discussions involve things about which students are the authority (they’ll certainly have the upper hand in anything related to TV or movies these days). The last few weeks of the semester, some of those conversations turned to summer plans, and I talked with some of my classes a bit about my research and writing plans, and my meeting schedule for the start of summer. But as I’ve attended those meetings, it has occurred to me that I perhaps missed an opportunity in the way I talked about those plans.

Educators talk about our goal of teaching students to be life-long learners, but I wonder if we sometimes forget to make the connection between that goal and what we do ourselves. When we research and write, we’re obviously learning, and we’re obviously engaging in larger discussions with our colleagues and peers aimed at creating knowledge. Sure, we’re working on topics about which we already know a ton, and we may appear to be experts, but there’s always more to learn, expertise to expand and rethink, and that’s what we’re constantly doing. But I think the learning side of this isn’t always transparent–I’m not always conscious of it, and I imagine outside observers don’t see things quite that way.

This has been marinating as I’ve attended workshops on UMW’s Quality Enhancement Plan and Speaking Intensive courses, and thinking ahead to next week’s Writing Intensive workshop. As I sit in the Wall-E-themed student desks in Monroe, trying to configure them for comfort, spinning the seat one way, extending the small desk on its swinging arm away from me to try to get the laptop keyboard to a comfortable distance and at a workable angle, I am reminded that the student seats aren’t always comfortable. Nor should they be. Comfort would be doing the same thing I always do in the classroom, which would get boring for me, but which also wouldn’t improve my students’ experiences. I want to do that, and I need to do that. I think I have some strengths as a teacher, but I certainly have some weaknesses as well; I’m not yet great, but I’m invested. And to approach greatness, I need to improve, and to improve I need to learn.

What I’m getting at here is that I should have re-framed my summer when talking with those students before class. Summer is “off” in the sense that I am no longer primarily the teacher, having to plan and run classes. It’s my best chance to reflect on my teaching experiences and seek help for continuing to improve the way I teach–in terms of the readings I assign, the assignments I develop, the feedback I give, the way I run discussions, etc.–at a time when I don’t have to immediately translate new ideas into practical applications. It’s my best chance to expend time and energy on developing new ideas about the topics I research and write about, and to pursue new avenues of inquiry in my reading and thinking.

In other words, summer is my time to really be the learner, and let my sources, peers/colleagues/students teach me.

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