Negotiating Our Tradition: Liberal Education and the Pre-Professional Arts

Barbara Ungar, Professor of English, discussed how and why it is important to teach poetry to today’s undergraduates. First she addressed the issue of how to get today’s students interested while they are living in a culture centered on the exterior. In our consumer culture people are concerned with jobs, looks, technology, and the media; poetry dealing with rape, incest, pain, abuse, and self-mutilation reflects this culture. Some techniques Ungar uses in her poetry course act as spiritual support for accessing and dealing with the interiority of student’s lives. Ungar takes students through exercises in movement, yoga, modern dance, breathing, and, what she focused on for the rest of her presentation, meditation, to accomplish this. In a meditation exercise, Ungar would bring her students into a meditative state and then read to them the day’s assignments. After coming out of the meditative state she would have students free-write and then discuss what they read, heard, felt, and wrote. The effect this type of exercise has for the class, Ungar finds, is bringing them into a deeper experience with the text, getting them in touch with their interior spaces, and helping them learn to read in a deeper way.

Steve Black, Faculty Librarian, talked about how a liberal education makes for well-rounded students by helping them gain knowledge, skills, and a range of perspectives. A problem that teachers face in liberal education is that a student taking general/liberal education courses often only takes one class from each of that academic areas; they are only able to “dip their toes in.” It is essential, however, to try to ensure that students come away with the realization that they do not know everything about everything. To demonstrate this type of awakening, ? discussed his experience traveling abroad in Germany. Having taken courses in the German language, ? assumed that he would have no problem communicating in and understanding the foreign language. The reality of the situation, however, revealed that ? didn’t know German as well as he thought, nor did he account for the fact that practicing the language and actually speaking it in-country are very different situations. It was at this point that ? realized there was so much he thought he knew that, in reality, he did not. It is this sense of humility that is the ideal situation for a student, and it is one that a liberal education can help foster. With a realization like this, a student becomes aware of their own assumptions, and this is very important in their development as thinkers.

Margaret Kirwin, Dean of the School of Education, spoke about the value of a liberal education that informs teacher education programs and specifically how a liberally educated teacher teaches kids. When thinking about educating teachers, pedagogy—the “how”—is important, but what to teach and to whom is imperative as well. Something Kirwin wants her students do is to think about the discipline they will be teaching to students in terms of the student’s adult level of consciousness; teachers should envision their students’ path to adulthood. When teaching a child then, though it is important that content is at the appropriate level, they should envision the child-learner as the adult-product as well. One project that Kirwin uses with her students is to imagine a hypothetical audience, develop a unit theme (this would be some liberal arts content theme), and develop some interdisciplinary way to teach. This requires the education student to understand the concept they want their students to arrive at, which might involve working them through other concepts or terminology. This project is effective because it requires education students to continually demonstrate the content of their projects. The goal for the education students with this project is to teach their students content substance and engage them in a way that meets all levels of their students’ needs. This learning/teaching process helps students/future teachers see any assumptions they may have had about given topics that they are taught/teaching.

Below, Professor Steve Black’s handout on the Liberal Education Goal Statement.

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Teaching in a Culture of Assessment

Megan Overby, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders, spoke of her responsibities to academic standards (those of St. Rose and of other organizations) as she teaches diagnostics and clinical writing to her students. Since Overby is able to find academic freedom within the educational standards she must uphold, she focuses on finding common themes to address within her discipline. One example of how Overby incorporates her culture of assessment into teaching is through her graduate students’ Cultural Observation Project. For this project, students must attend a cultural event, research the phonology of the culture they choose, interview someone at the event using a rubric, and write a reaction paper. Overby explained that the interview rubric not only focuses the student on necessary language and communication characteristics, it (and the project itself) is embedded with many other standards set by St. Rose and other important professional entities. Overby recognizes the positive experience her students continually have in this project while they are also meeting standards. Some of the standards students meet in this project are achieving knowledge of the discipline, observing cultural influences on communication style and parts of speech, learning about the diagnostic process by understanding something about a particular culture, and achieving an awareness of their community.

J. Daniel Beaudry, Adjunct Instructor for the English Department, presented on his experience using contract learning. Exercising his academic freedom, Beaudry experimented with this grading system first by addressing concerns like: Where do the standards go in this system? Might this system lead to grade inflation? Will this system just be more work for the professor? Because a teacher’s purpose it to teach and evaluate, Beaudry had to deal with the confusion for both professor and student when evaluation is redirected into instilling particular habits and processes while giving constructive, timely feedback. In order to construct a learning contract Beaudry suggested beginning by assessing what is in one’s subject that a good practitioner does all of the time. As an example of implementing contract learning and following this line of thought, Beaudy assembled a contract for a writing class that required good readers who could comment, criticize, and connect readings in order to write effectively. Though the contract Beaudry gave his students was long, he found that it was not confusing and overwhelming; rather it served as a helpful tool with a lot of information and prevented students from getting lost in assignments. Some benefits Beaudry has found with a contract grading system are a reduction of cheating (students do not fear grade damage), that there is no longer a need to justify grading, and when assessing the final work of students in a course, he is able to really discern exceptional work.

Jennifer Childress, Associate Professor in Art Education, presented on the assessment processes used by and on her art education students. Implementing a layering of goals, Childress uses textbooks that have longevity, addresses problems with solving and predicting in lessons, incorporates critical thinking skills, and works on reading and writing skills with her students. Childress finds academic freedom in her teaching and for her student teachers in being able to move around within rubrics always holding that the teacher is at least doing what she must. As her student teachers evaluate themselves and their lessons, they are asked to revise and reflect on what they did well and what they need to improve on—they score themselves (1, 2, 3, or 4). In this process Childress finds that her students become objective observers of data and they can utilizes readings that are pertinent to what they need to improve on. Also teaching professional standards, Childress has her student teachers write a letter to the next batch of student teachers. Not only does this exercise promote teachers helping teachers, it also engages her students with research and thinking through classroom exercises that help/hinder their students. Childress has found that her rubric evaluation system helps her students think about and perform quality work, rather than worrying about grades.

Teaching Critical Thinking

Jamin Totino, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, presented on Universal Design in education. With a history grounded in architecture (the planning of buildings and facilities for greater access by all), Universal Design (UD) seeks to foster greater access to education. In education, UD began in the 1980s working away from a medical model that stigmatized and segregated people (defining them as damaged)and towards a social model in which, when UD is implemented, there is no need to accommodate students. Again, it borrows from the architectural principles of UD in the Seven Education Principles of UD: Equitable, Flexible, Simple and Intuitive, Perceptible, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use. UD supports critical thinking by allowing full access to a course’s materials and assignments for all students, rather than working out accommodations for students on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, UD fosters critical thinking for educators as well since it requires that a course be accessible to all learning styles (i.e. using different media for materials) and requires regular checks and updates of accessibility to all of a course’s components.

Dr. Angela Ledford presented “A Cultivation of Key Skills Approach” to teaching critical thinking. Using her Political Ideologies course as an example, Ledford explained her process of instilling close reading skills combined with note-taking and connecting concepts in her students to build their critical thinking skills. As an answer to the questions, “What’s important? What do I write down?”  Ledford gives her students a set of headings—categories of things to look for—when reading. As the student becomes aware of these specific categories while reading and note-taking, the student is able to attach the ideas of a particular thinker/writer with different ways those ideas are understood. The next step for the student is to make connections among concepts—associating particular ideologies with different historical periods. The final step for the student, then, is being able to write clearly and self-consciously about the material she has learned.

Dr. Laura Weed presented on Logic and Critical Thinking. As these are subjects about arguments, Weed talked about teaching students the structuring of arguments and the relationship among an argument’s claims. This is an important step for students because critical thinking depends on judging the quality of arguments. Weed also commented that the language of an argument is important because grammar is the logic of language. Weed teaches her students the vocabulary and ability to spot fallacies and to avoid fallacies in their own thinking; to think logically. The restructuring of students’ thinking—to break their bad mental habits—is Weed’s goal for her students. Since this process takes time and practice, Weed added that it would be ideal to teach Logic/Critical Thinking in smaller amounts of time (blocks of 2-credit-hour units) over the course of a year or two.

These three presentations call to attention the need for teaching and fostering critical thinking skills in students, but also highlight the requirement of critical thinking in teaching, designing, and structuring of courses—to create environments, to implement models of instruction, and to practice these skills over and over to ensure that students understand and are able to use critical thinking both in and out of the classroom.

Click through to see Angela Ledford’s handout on teaching critical thinking in the political science classroom.

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