On Teaching General Education Courses

The semester is nearing its end, which means that my English 203 course–which focuses on Western literature in the Classical, Medieval, and Early Modern periods–will soon be finished.  The course fulfills a general education requirement, and it has been a delight. Because I am in a full-time administrative position, I only have the opportunity to teach one course a semester, so I am soaking up every minute of it.

Reading and discussing these texts with my students have reaffirmed for me the important role played by general education programs (and, by extension, liberal arts courses) for helping our students to develop as learners and critical thinkers.*

This certainly isn’t the first general education course I have taught; in fact, I have taught dozens of composition courses and introductory literature classes at other institutions.  The difference this semester is that my 203 course is the only one I am teaching, so I have the ability to look much more closely at the individual learning taking place than I could when I was teaching four courses every semester.  At that point, you are trying to do your best for your students and just stay on top of things at the same time.

It has been a terrific semester.  My students come from many different majors and have impressed me with their interpretations.  Of course, we have also been able to share in the joys that are unique to the study of literature.

The highlights:

1.  I held individual tutorials with each student for their first essay.  They arrived at their 30-minute meeting with 2 copies of a complete draft of the paper, and then they read it aloud as I followed along and made notes to myself in the margins.  After they finished reading, I would then offer extensive feedback while they took notes in their own words on their copy of the essay.  I then kept my copy in order to see the evolution from draft to final copy.  I was very happy with the results.

2.  I’m going to blog about teaching Beowulf soon, but I want to say here that the students did an amazing job exploring and building arguments regarding the socio-political commentary in the poem.  I wish some of my medievalist friends could have heard these students talking about Grendel and his mother as characters constructed by the poet to comment on Anglo-Saxon law codes and cycles of vengeance.  They would have been thrilled.

3.  Together they have discovered (and I have rediscovered) the brilliance, beauty, and sadness–and the humor too–of Don Quixote. I grow more amazed by that book each time I read it.

To me, this is what general education programs are about:  the chance to learn something new, to combine this new learning with prior knowledge to construct meaning, to apply these new constructs to the discipline, and then to extend this thinking to other disciplines as well.

In short, this has been a great semester.  I need to thank my students for this.

*And, yes–I know that “critical thinking” is a hotly contested term because it often seems to have too many vague definitions.  I’m currently co-directing a reading group that is focusing on Stephen D. Brookfield’s Teaching for Critical Thinking (Jossey-Bass, 2011).  In it, Brookfield defines critical thinking as the ability to identify and question assumptions.  I think he is on to something here, but I am simply using the term to broadly denote the kind of insightful, incisive thinking/reading/writing that helps us to make meaning and construct new knowledge, which are–I believe–some of the most important goals of higher education.

Teaching and the Brain

Although I am still firmly committed to my research on medieval literature, particularly the book I am writing on The Canterbury Tales with the inestimable John Sexton from Bridgewater State University (See the blog “MASS Medieval” that John writes with Kisha Tracy for more information), I also have a long-standing interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Lately, I have been especially interested in exploring brain-based learning theories, a relatively new area of research that has its roots in cognitive neuroscience.  As a result, I recently made a presentation at the Lilly South Conference on the role played by the brain’s amygdala in the learning process.  The amygdala has a significant degree of responsibility for conditioned and unconditioned fear responses, and I argued that when a student is confronted with new or challenging or difficult material for the first time, his or her amygdala becomes activated and impedes learning.  As instructors, if we can understand this and learn a few basic techniques for reducing amygdalar activity, we may be able 1) to recognize that what may seem to be a lack of comprehension or other cognitive difficulty on the part of our students may actually be physiological, and 2) to help our students learn more effectively.

I am currently in the process of transforming this presentation into an article, and at the same time I am working on a larger project tentatively called Narratives of Alterity:  College Teaching, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Necessity of the Humanities.  I am intrigued by what happens in our brains when we study the humanities and the arts, what changes these subjects cause in our brains, and–ultimately–what neuroscience might reveal to us about the ways in which these subjects are necessary for the development of our cognitive processes.  Because our brains break information down into metaphors and stories, it stands to reason that those fields in which narratives (textual, visual, etc.) are central would help to train the brain to do so.  It is definitely a hypothesis at this point, but I want to see where it goes.

I think brain-based learning theories fascinate me so much because good teaching can too often seem like a magical art or an arcane text with hidden meanings.  In other words, even if we are consciously using every best practice we can think of in the classroom, we can still wonder if what we are doing is working or if any of the material has stuck with our students.  Understanding the brain, then, helps me to see that learning is a physical process as much as anything else, and if we know what happens in the brain, then we can figure out what to do to help our students learn in a much more concrete way.

There are some great resources out there for brain-based learning theories.  My favorites so far are those by James E. Zull:  The Art of Changing the Brain (2002) and From Brain to Mind (2011).