NCRS: Issues in Theology

For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.

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Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 2: Issues in Theology

Speakers:

  • Kyle Lincoln, Edinburgh: Exploring Pulpit Shaming within a Nineteenth Century Scottish Literary Context
  • David Rathel, St Andrews: Ecclesiology and Empire: Surveying Nineteenth Century Evangelical Attitudes to British Expansion in India

The third speaker booked for this seminar had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances. Regardless, we had a great turnout for Kyle Lincoln and David Rathel, who explored topics in theology and religion in the context of the 19th century.  

Thoughts on the talks:

  • Kyle Lincoln
    • Kyle's opening discussion of 'shame' in different contexts was very interesting; he continued to explore the theological issues raised by pulpit shaming - the denouncement of an individual, group, or activity by the minister, speaking from the authority of the pulpit - as presented in Scottish literature by Robert Burns and James Hogg.
    • There were many concepts and feelings connected with the concept of shame, such as hypocrisy, dishonour, and discipline. The individual's privacy is destroyed by the polemical, public nature of the shaming.
  • David Rathel
    • David spoke about Buchanan's sermon 'The Star in the East', and Britain's evangelical-colonial delusion - that God chose Britain in the way that he had once chosen the Israelites, to become his missionaries across the world - in particular, in India. Convictions about the role of divine providence in the rise of Britain's power provided the Church with evangelical - and moral - justifications for colonial activity. The expansion of Christianity and growth of the British Empire in the 19th century are intimately connected.
    • I found David's presentation of the idea of the 'providential view of history' very interesting - that is, the belief that God is guiding history in a certain way or to a certain end. This is one of the ideas that Nietzsche vehemently attacks, in essays such as 'On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life'

The next NCRS is on March 29th. The topic is 'Colonialism and Literature'.

Peer Observation | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


At the end of the last AFHEA seminar, everyone in the class paired up in preparation for the peer observation exercise. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the wonderful new experience of watching a colleague teach, and had her visit my classroom in turn. Here, I reflect on what happened, using Brookfield's reflective lenses to think about my experience during the peer observation process. 

I wanted to step outside of my normal teaching experience in the humanities, so I swapped with a colleague who teaches maths tutorials. We wrote some notes to brief one another on what we wanted to achieve in the tutorials, and what we wanted feedback on from the observation session, and met to discuss these notes before the observation. After the observations were complete, we debriefed one another, and exchanged written notes from the observations.

The peer observation exercise was incredibly productive for me. Observing a colleague deliver a tutorial in another discipline showed me definitively that many of the challenges of teaching are independent of subject-area; that is, they affect the profession as a whole. My colleague’s worries were similar to mine: how do I get all of the students to participate? Am I teaching in a well-paced, understandable way? This perspective is unique to the reflective lens of the ‘colleague’. The other lenses – assessing my own autobiography, asking the students for feedback, and reading scholarship and research on teaching – may point to this conclusion, but the evidence that hits the point home comes from observing another’s teaching.

Another way that the observation was productive for me was because of the excellent feedback my colleague provided on my own tutorial she observed. The autobiographical lens gets caught up in how it felt to deliver that tutorial, and about whether I managed to convey the finer points of the content; similarly, student feedback is always about the classroom experience of individuals. When a colleague observes your teaching, they get a holistic sense of how the classroom works as a whole. They can see your rapport and interaction with the students, and how the students engage with you, because they are free from the burden of inhabiting either perspective.

The experience of having done a peer observation has encouraged me to participate in reciprocal observation as a tool for reviewing my teaching in the future. Whilst I have been observed before, I had never observed a colleague before, and I had never engaged in reciprocal observing. It was very productive to discuss the successes and challenges in our teaching, with the reference to our notes from the observations, and I hope that it benefits both of us in our teaching development. For this reason, I plan to seek out colleagues to do observation exchanges with in the future. I would also like to engage in this kind of activity again as a way of developing my critical feedback skills, for the day in the future when I am a course organiser observing new tutors for the first time.

This week in Tutorials: Aristotle on Substance and Pericles' Funeral Oration

The philosophers finished Plato last week, and this time we started our tutorials on Aristotle, with a look at Aristotle's metaphysics - specifically, Metaphysics VII 13. The question at hand is, what is there? This is ontology: the science of being, from the Greek οὐσία [ousia]: ‘being, substance, essence’.

To understand what Aristotle means by substance and what is at stake in his theory as presented in the Metaphysics, I put the students into groups to evaluate different conceptions of substance prior to Aristotle.  I provided them with fragments from four different Presocratic philosophers, that I hoped would provide a 'shallow' understanding of each of these philosophers' conception of substance. The philosophers I provided were Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Democritus (ft. Leucippus). Some examples:

Thales of Miletus declared that the principle of all things was water. For he says from water come all things and into water do all things decompose.
— Thales (Aëtius p 1.3.1, S 1.10.12)
Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, was an associate of Anaximander, who says, like him, that the underlying nature is single and boundless, but not indeterminate as he says, but determinate, calling it air. It differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while when it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, when still more condensed, water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these. And he too makes motion everlasting, as a result of which change occurs.
— Anaximenes (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 24.26-25.1)
This world-order, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.
— Heraclitus (Clement, Miscellanies, 5. 103. 6)
Democritus considers the nature of everlasting things to be tiny substances infinite in number. He posits a distinct place for them which is infinite in size. He calls place by the names the void, not-thing, and the boundless, and each of the substances by the names thing, the compact, and what-is. He believes the substances are so small as to escape our senses. They have all kinds of forms, all kinds of figures, and differences of size.
— Democritus (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, 294.33-295.22)

The point of the comparison is to show that, generally speaking, previous philosophers attempted to define substance in terms of matter - particular kinds of 'stuff': water, air, fire, or atoms. Aristotle thinks these explanations for what there is are insufficient. He moves beyond a single material explanation for substance, analysing it in terms of 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' refers to what kind of thing the object of enquiry is; 'matter', that which the object of enquiry is constituted. The composite of these forms individuals, or primary substances. 

Contrasting the Presocratic philosophers on substance with Aristotle on substance helped the students understand the motivation behind the formulation of Aristotle's theory. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to understand why Aristotle approaches substances and universals the way he does. With the context of the theories of his predecessors, the theory of substance becomes clearer.

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The classicists looked at Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides 2.34-46, and the controversy around the Athenian acropolis. The funeral oration was delivered at the burial of the fallen Athenians in the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Much of it focuses on the glory and virtue of Athenian democracy and civic life; in this way, Pericles tries to justify the loss of life in its defence. The Parthenon metopes and frieze were constructed as part of Pericles' building programme. Plutarch records the controversy in antiquity around this building programme in Pericles 12.1-2; the complaint is that the funds for it were pillaged from the Delian League:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions for the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.
— Plutarch, Pericles 12.1-2

Through this comparison of Pericles' funeral oration with the question of the controversy over the Periclean building programme, we explored different perspectives on Periclean Athens, and practiced using different evidence for the ancient world – rhetorical, material, and historical. The key question in the discussion was about the concept of democracy and its representation in Pericles’ speech, as well as the the political context of the construction of the Parthenon and the purpose of its sculptures.

Next time, the philosophers are focussing in on Aristotle's four causes from the Physics. The next tutorial for the classicists is on citizen and non-citizen women in Athens.

Thoughts on Learning and Forgetting | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


Gibbs opens this article with a story familiar, surely, to all of us; of sitting in a lecture theatre some years ago... and that being more or less all you remember about the course. He writes:

Most of what we are taught, much of what we learn, is lost, or at least not easily retrievable. It is possible that some of my economics course is buried in my brain somewhere and that a cunning set of prompts might enable me to retrieve a few fragments. But it is certainly not available to me as I read an article in the newspaper about some national economic issue and try to remember what Gross Domestic Product includes and what it does not.
— Gibbs, 2014

As a student who couldn't tell you much about some of the courses I took in my first year of undergraduate study, I can testify to the truth of this statement. But as an early career teacher, this statement is initially rather depressing. So much thought and energy goes into reading the set texts, developing lesson plans, and delivering those lessons - only to think that what the students recall about our lessons in ten, fifteen years time may be fragmentary at best. 

However, the important thing is to take this fact of the matter on board when it comes to designing learning and setting outcomes for the class. Rather than worry about the deterioration of a student's factual knowledge of Plato, can I help them develop the skills to read Platonic dialogues in the future? Can I show them the resources available to teach themselves and reinforce their understanding? The skills and strategies for reading, discussing, and understanding philosophy should endure beyond the factual recall of the texts themselves.

There is some respite from the question of "will my students forget everything we learn together?" in Gibbs' discussion relating this fact of forgetting to assessment styles. A study of Cognitive Psychology students at the Open University that showed that, many years later, many of the students had forgotten much of what they had learned on the course. Achievement in the exams did not correlate with what they could remember, however; it was achievement in the essays and coursework that predicted the long term recall of concepts. He writes:

The kind of learning students usually do for exams often has short-lasting consequences, while the kind of learning they do when they are trying to understand something well enough to write about it in assignments often has much longer lasting consequences. This is termed a ‘deep approach’ – an intention to make sense, to understand, to relate ideas together, and so on.
— Gibbs, 2014

Exams rely on memorisation of facts for recall in that one 2 or 3 hour window of furious writing that comes at the end of the course. Learning for exams is often shallow; a re-reading of notes, rote memorisation of dates, and stacks of flash-cards. This kind of knowledge is likely to slip away when not being actively cultivated in preparation for that one opportunity for recall.

Coursework and essays, on the other hand, ask students to critically engage with the material from the course. This leads to a deep approach to the material: students can return to different papers and primary sources they've read, follow the citations in them, explore the limits of their essay question. The process of relating ideas and concepts together in this way makes the students more likely to be able to remember the material further down the line.

The upside of this is that, in this aspect, tutorial teaching resembles more an essay than an exam. The aim of tutorial discussion is to practice evaluating and analysing the text, concept, or other material, much like they have to do in their formal assessments. It is the 'deep' approach to learning in practice, as I encourage the students to relate what they have learned to other concepts, whether those are from their lectures, their wider reading, or their own experience.

What this means is that, hopefully, if a student remembers anything of their course in a decade's time, then it is likely to be our tutorial discussions.

This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.

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The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


Yesterday, I attended the second workshop of the IntroAP course. In the first session, the discussion focussed in on the first two core Professional Values of the UK Professional Standards Framework:

V1: Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities

V2: Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners 

This time, our focus was on the third Professional Value:

V3: Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development 

This is, essentially, a call to becoming a critically reflective teacher: one who works towards improving their practice by engaging with and incorporating information and advice from different sources, from articles and workshops to conversations with colleagues from all kinds of different disciplines. 

The key reading I enjoyed in this session is the chapter on 'Becoming Critically Reflective' Stephen Brookfield's 'Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher'.¹ There are four lenses through which we can review our teaching practice, he writes (p29-30). These are:

  1. Autobiography: our own experiences as learners and teachers. What formative experiences have shaped our practice today?
  2. Students: attempting to see ourselves through our students' eyes, and taking student feedback on board. How do the students experience my classroom?
  3. Colleagues: having critical conversations with colleagues, or observing each other's practice. What is everyone else struggling with? What are they doing to improve?
  4. Theory: reading about pedagogy. What's happening in the scholarship?

These lenses can help us step outside our own assumptions about our teaching practice and gain new perspectives. Thinking about my history as both a student and a teacher helps me realise why I do certain things in the classroom, and why I feel more comfortable with this activity over that. My students and colleagues are often better placed to identify where I could improve than I am - and it's necessary to be open and receptive to that feedback. Reading theory shows us how common many of our classroom experiences are, and gives evidence-based explanations for different teaching and learning styles. 

Brookfield discusses many of the results of becoming critically reflective. The one I think is most important is, 'We See Ourselves as Being in Continual Formation' (p42):

It is in the nature of the reflective process for us always to be evolving. We never have the luxury of regarding ourselves as fully finished critical products who have reached the zenith of reflective evolution. We see our ideas and practices as needing constant investigation. [...] At no time do we ever consider the possibilities for learning and change to be fully closed.

This passage identifies the the heart of my motivation for taking this course in the first place. Just as I never consider myself as having 'finished' becoming a researcher and philosopher - in fact, I feel like I'm constantly learning new things, new approaches, and new methodology - I certainly haven't 'finished' becoming a teacher. One doesn't 'become' these things, and become a static end-product; one is always 'becoming' them. I am always becoming a philosopher, a teacher, and a researcher. Critical reflection on these processes of 'becoming' is essential.

Between now and the next workshop, we're completing teaching observations of one another. I wanted to observe the teaching practice of someone in a problem-based tutorial subject rather than a discussion-based tutorial subject area, to see what I could learn from the difference in practice, so I paired up with a colleague who teaches mathematics. I'll observe her tutorials, and she'll observe mine, and we'll exchange feedback. As preparation, I'm thinking about some of the following issues:

  • What kind of feedback would I find helpful or like to receive if I were her? 
  • What can I learn from her practice to incorporate into mine?
  • What aspects of my own teaching practice do I want to hear the most feedback on?
  • What can I learn from this exercise for when I conduct tutorial observations in the future?

All in all, I'm quite excited at the prospect of stepping outside of my comfort zone here: both by conducting an observation for the first time, and by exploring teaching practice outside of the humanities. 

1. Brookfield, Stephen, (1995) "Becoming critically reflective" from Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a critically reflective teacher. pp.28-48, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 

NCRS: Travel and Exploration

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For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.


Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 1: Travel and Exploration

Speakers:

  • Dr Ilda Erkoçi, Edinburgh: The image of Albania in 19th century travel writing
  • Gesa Jessen, Oxford: Germans up on the Mountain and down by the Sea - Heinrich Heine’s Travel Pictures and the Emergence of Nature Tourism
  • Edwina Watson, Oxford: “Headlong perpendicular”: The Elevation of Poetry in Byron’s Manfred and Alpine Journal

Today was the first session of the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series. I was very pleased at how well-attended the session was. Though the topic, 'Travel and Exploration', is quite outside of my area of expertise, any broadening my knowledge of the 19th century serves to provide context for my research on Nietzsche and 19th century European philosophy and philology. However, Edwina's paper inspired an investigation that filled in a gap in my knowledge of Nietzsche's development: that is, Nietzsche's engagement with Byron.

Thoughts on the talks:

  • Dr Ilda Erkoçi
    • Ilda discussed how Albania was recorded in 19th century British travel writing. I was interested to hear about how Classics had a role in the British interest in the 'near east': archeology was a motivation for travel, for middle-class travellers educated in classical studies.
    • Travel writing was largely by educated, upper class writers - resulting in colonial or superior tone in their reportage. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, many of the prominent and influential travel writers were actually women. An example is Mary Edith Durham, who wrote about the Balkans; she first introduced anthropological elements in travel writing. 
  • Gessa Jessen
    • Gessa addressed the travel of Germans in Germany in the 19th century. There was a bourgeois infatuation between the German middle classes and the Harz mountains in the 19th century, whilst the seaside emerged as an exclusive travel destination for the upper classes. 
    • In his 1826 work Reisebilder (Travel Pictures), Heinrich Heine evokes Goethe's Faust in his approach to the peak of the Brocken. There is at once a nationalist and romantic nature to this interplay of German Classicism and nature tourism. 
  • Edwina Watson
    • Edwina talked about Byron's excursions into the Alps, as referenced in Manfred and the Alpine Journal, and how they relate to an 'elevation' of poetry and Byron's vertiginous aspirations in the literary sphere. Byron's Manfred is Goethe's Faust reimagined - and this metaphysical, gothic drama is full of allusions to Byron's own experiences in the Alps. 
    • I thought that there seemed to be similarities between Edwina's description of Byron's Manfred and Nietzsche's Zarathustra, from the mountainside setting, image of the eagle, and philosophical themes. It turns out this intuition was spot on: "Ich will das Ganze als eine Art Manfred und ganz persönlich schreiben," Nietzsche writes, in reference to the Zarathustra (NF-1881,12[70]). In Ecce Homo, 'Why I am so wise' §4, he reports having read Manfred at 13 years of age.

The next NCRS is on February 22nd, and the topic is 'Issues in Theology'. 

This Week in Tutorials: Definition and Translation in Plato's Meno

I taught my first tutorials for Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment today. The aim of our discussion of Plato's Meno 70a-79d was to examine the definitions of virtue given in the Meno, question “definitions” and the possibility of making definitions, and practice discussing and evaluating texts from the history of philosophy.

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The dialogue opens abruptly with a conversation between Socrates and Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly. The discussion is centred on virtue, or excellence (ἀρετή), and the question of whether virtue can be taught. For many of the Sophists, the belief that virtue can be taught was key to the education they provided. However, in the Meno, the question is whether virtue is the result of teaching, nature, or practice (70a). 

But first, Socrates asserts, before we can decide whether virtue can be taught, we must define what virtue is (70a-71d). We must know what the thing that we are dealing with is before we can discuss whether it has certain qualities, such as if it is teachable. Socrates invites Meno to attempt a definition of virtue.

Definition, we find, is a tricky business. Meno offers up three different interpretative strategies. In one, he gives examples of virtue: the virtue of a man and woman (71e). However, Socrates objects on the grounds that you cannot define virtue by providing a litany of examples of it. Meno's second and third attempts are objected to in similar ways. In the 73c, Meno offers a definition of virtue as the ability to rule, and at 78c as the ability to get good things. Both of these definitions, Socrates objects, are at the same time too broad and too narrow: there are cases of virtue they don't include, and cases of less than virtuous action that they do include.

Along with the issue of definition, reading the Meno requires us to engage with the issue of translation. Some students in the class brought along copies of the text other than the prescribed translation. On two different occasions today, students offered up their alternative translations along with the interpretative consequences of their translation. The following case is the one I want to look at in detail:

ἀρετή as virtue or excellence 

How do these different translations affect our interpretation of the Meno? The problem of definition revisits us: just as Socrates says that we must define ἀρετή to decide whether it is teachable, we must make a move to definite ἀρετή in order to translate it. 'Virtue', for the students, may be laden with moral connotations from when we studied virtue ethics last semester. Already, students wanted to introduce Aristotle as a contributor to our discussion. 'Excellence', on the other hand, isn't so strictly moral. We might say that someone is an excellent vet, meaning that they are skilled at diagnosing and treating sickness in animals. What would be the strictly moral sense of being a good veterinarian? Plato's usage of ἀρετή in the Meno seems to stand between these two translations: on the one hand, there is mention of canonical virtues, such as justice and moderation, but on the other hand, the definitions that Meno gives that hint at ἀρετή as doing something well, whether that is ruling or obtaining good things, look more towards the idea we have of 'excellence'. 

Beyond the philosophical problem here is the pedagogical problem: how far should I take first year undergraduate students down the 'alternatives in translation' rabbit hole, in a course taught entirely in translation? Would ἀρετή benefit from the 'eudaemonia' treatment, i.e., being generally left untranslated? It's easy to get distracted by the different ideas we can get from the text with the different translations in mind, and there's only so much time. 

Thoughts on Anxiety in the Classroom | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


This article was one of the first of Graham Gibbs' articles I read. It discusses the way that fear and anxiety can manifest in students and their studying behaviours. On the first page, the following line jumped out at me:

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying [...] They might choose obvious essay questions on subject matter that has been covered thoroughly in lectures or the text book, or where the ‘right answers’ seem fairly straightforward. [...] They prioritise coverage over depth. [...] All decisions are intended to reduce risk.
— Gibbs, 2014

In the course of marking student essays, I've noticed the phenomenon of the 'popular' essay. A large proportion of the class will answer this particular essay question. The question will engage with a topic that was covered in at least a week's worth of the lectures, or one of the tutorials. Whilst many students will engage with the question with the results of their own reading, displaying the development of original thought and a high level of engagement with the subject matter, many more of these essays will rely on the textbook or recommended reading, hitting the same surface-level points along the way with little critical engagement, resulting in middling marks.

In the past, I wondered whether this phenomenon was due to the essay being seen as 'easy' or 'straightforward' by the students, with little consideration for the motivations for choosing the essay topic beyond that criterion. However, reading Gibbs' article, I wonder whether the reason behind this is anxiety.

Are the other essay questions neglected because the topics weren't covered sufficiently well in the lectures or tutorials? If students are too anxious to admit to a lack of depth of understanding of the course material, they might therefore take the lower risk presented by the 'popular' essay, rather than face the prospect of asking for help. Anxiety can make asking for help seem like an insurmountable task, with an accompanying fear of shame at the possibility of seeming 'stupid'. If anxiety results in the students thinking that asking for help will be unpleasant, then this can be a huge barrier to learning. Approachability is important - letting students know that you are open to questions about the topic or the essay material at the end of the tutorial may empower them to ask for help. 

Are the straightforward essay questions picked because students do not feel prepared to tackle the more complex question? Do we do enough to help students understand what essay question-words like 'explore' and 'analyse' mean in context? Not understanding how to approach a certain essay question increases the risk of not answering it properly, or the risk of failure, which can cause anxiety. I signpost my students to writing resources; there are many excellent resources online, such as Purdue OWL, the UNC Writing Center, and the University of Southampton Writing Centre. Students in PPLS at Edinburgh can also take advantage of the PPLS Writing Centre. I'd love suggestions to add to the resources I recommend to students come essay-time.

Finally, I worry about the problem of anxiety and surface-level learning. In tutorials, I try to provide an environment where students can explore the topics, get involved with in-depth discussion, and practice original and independent thought. In this way, these tutorials are practice for the essays; students can try their ideas out on the class and benefit from hearing the thoughts of others. Am I doing enough to encourage students to go beyond surface-level fact finding and tackle the subject in depth? Am I creating a comfortable space for anxious students to critically engage with the subject material before essay time? A lot of the activities I set for my students are small-group discussions. This gives quiet or anxious students space to talk with a small number of their peers. Often, I find that this breaking of the silence empowers them to speak in front of the rest of the class later on. The risk of embarrassment from talking in front of the whole group is deflated, as they have tried out their ideas already. For some tasks, I have time to check on each group individually before asking the groups to feed back to the class as a whole. This enables me to give attention to small groups of 3 or 4 students at a time; this is when many of the 'quiet' ones may ask me a question or tell me something they found interesting about the reading. The risk of asking a question in front of everyone, of 'seeming stupid', collapses, and I can have a brief one-on-one conversation with the student. What other techniques could I be using in the classroom to reduce anxiety?

Anxiety can be a huge barrier to education. Further thought is needed on how to encourage students to critically engage with the course material as they go, with positive reinforcement along the way.  

 

What is Teaching? | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


Today I went to the first workshop of the course. One of our tasks was to think about the following questions, and write our answers down on Post-it notes:

What is teaching? What is it that you’re doing in the classroom?

Each group covered a sheet of paper with Post-it notes, before passing the sheets round to the next group to read and discuss. There were a lot of answers like 'facilitating open discussion', 'imparting facts and knowledge', and 'providing students a space to develop thinking skills', but the following juxtaposition was particularly interesting:

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."  Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."

Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

At first, I judged the answer on the left as dispassionate and overly analytical. I said it sounded like the job posting for teaching, and that it didn't capture a sense of the real value of teaching. I liked the answer on the right better - good teaching inspires students to engage with the course material, new perspectives and ideas, and, ultimately, the world around them. To reduce this to 'course outcomes' sounded to me like restrictive box-ticking, or doing the bare minimum.

However, a colleague pointed out that these two answers can - and, I now think, must - be taken together. Our students all come into the classroom with different backgrounds and motivations, but one thing they share is the desire to succeed. Teachers should work towards that spirit of wonder at the world, but what is that work worth if the students leave without the knowledge, skills, and understanding that they came in for? It is important not to lose sight of the essentials of the course you're teaching.

Upon reflection, teaching should deliver the course outcomes, and inspire a love of learning along the way.