The Silent Head Shake (or… Audience Etiquette)

To be a member of an audience for a live performance is to hold a certain amount of power.

Think about it.

Actors prepare weeks in advance to bring the public their very best.  Their work is exposed for the audience to either praise or pan.  The energy a full house brings to the performance can lift the spirits of those on stage and behind the scenes or. . .

…it can create a bitter enmity.

The same show across multiple performances can see quiet and defiant patrons as well as laughing and appreciative audiences.  And the comments backstage will reflect the actors’ read on the participants in the seats.

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This house is AWESOME.  They get the jokes and applaud after every scene!”

or. . .

“Did you see the girl on her cell phone?”

or. . .

“Why are they SO DEAD today?”

or. . .

"Albert Guillaume Au theatre" by Albert Guillaume - Bonhams. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Albert Guillaume Au theatre” by Albert Guillaume
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

“I thought we were sold out.  Why are there so many empty seats?”

Because of the amount of work and personal investment that goes into every performance, actors, directors, and technicians tend to get emotionally involved in the response.  We LOVE a committed, attentive, and receptive patron.  We loathe the individual who strolls in late, yawns a lot, looks around, checks their social media, and leaves at intermission.

A few years ago, in an attempt to curb some inappropriate behavior emanating from our house, we published suggestions for audience etiquette in one of our programs.  Here are a few excerpts from that production’s bill:

Thank you for your attendance this evening.  We are grateful for your support of our theatre department, and we hope that tonight’s experience is a wonderful one.  In addition to our commitment to the students, it is part of our mission to inform and educate those who attend our programs.  To that end, please note the following guidelines regarding audience etiquette.  Many are not aware of the distractions that can occur during a performance that will hinder the work of the actors and/or diminish the experience of other audience members.

  1. TEXTING – Texting or checking social media is a major no-no.  The light in a dark house will catch an actor’s eye quicker than a falling set piece, and any distraction is dangerous.  It can also irritate those around you.  We also know when you try to hide it in your hand, cupped to your stomach, beneath your legs, or in your purse.
  2. HARD CANDY – Unwrapping hard candy or cough drops in the middle of a performance can be heard throughout the hall.  The sound of the plastic wrapper in your hands as you struggle to free the immovable treat takes those around you out of the illusion of the play.  It can kill an emotional moment: the lovers are about to kiss… and crack, shuffle, crack, twist, crack!  Unwrap before the show begins.
  3. BABIES – University theatre, unfortunately, is not for infants and young toddlers.  Some of our plays contain content that is for mature audiences only.  We tend to panic when we see a patron bring in his/her youngest family member.  Times are tough, and we know that hiring a sitter is not always an option.  We will be understanding as long as you sit on an aisle and exit as soon as the child becomes an interruption.
  4. UNPLANNED EXITS – Emergencies happen; that’s okay. For your comfort, we always note in the program how long an act will be before you get a break. Please look for this and plan accordingly.

    "Albert Guillaume Les retardataires" by Albert Guillaume  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    “Albert Guillaume Les retardataires” by Albert Guillaume
    Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. SLEEPING – Frankly, we’d rather you nap at home.  Not all shows are exciting all the time; we know this well.  But, we simply cannot afford to bring you an action movie in play form, and the students are working to learn the art.  Your kind attention is deeply appreciated.
  6. MAKING OUT – Eww.  No.  Just… no.  We are committed, however, to bringing you realistic kissing scenes when the script calls for it.  Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Have I seen each and every one of those happen in one or more of our performances in my time here?

Yep.

And sometimes we just feel like giving up on humanity when audiences do not practice good manners.  For example, in a recent production, a couple brought in a baby.  Our front-of-house staff tried to dissuade them from the show, explaining the loud noises and mature content (which was clearly stated on all our promotional materials and website).  The couple insisted on attending.  Our house manager asked them to please sit near the exit door in case the child should wake and cry.  They declined, insisting that the infant would sleep through the show.  They sat on the other side of the theatre, where they would have to cross the stage to exit.

"Emil Mayer 043" by Emil Mayer - Damals in Wien.   Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Emil Mayer 043″ by Emil Mayer – Damals in Wien.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This was also the one performance we had planned to film after receiving written permission from the playwright.

I’m sure you can guess what happened.  And instead of carrying the infant out the two times he cried, they turned to their fellow audience members and proclaimed, “We’re not leaving.”  The video?  Ruined.  The performance?  Strained.  The audience?  Antagonistic towards this couple.  Our faith in humanity?  *silent head shake*

All this is to say, we do this, in large part, for you—our audience!  We would be nowhere without our patrons.  We thrive on your attendance and participation.  We listen carefully to your feedback and response.  We pour ourselves out for you in the hopes that we can awaken an appreciation for the art form, for the issues addressed in the text, and for the talent and growth seen in the students.

Without you, our work is just another rehearsal.

And respecting the work . . . that’s just good manners.

TEL

Something Brave (or. . . The Performance)

Theatre performance, in its most basic form, requires an actor, a space, and an audience.  Historically speaking, I can’t think of a single deviation from those requirements.  But a good performance requires something more.  Something brave.

It requires vulnerability.

When you step out on that stage, as a performer, you expose yourself to ridicule, critical rants, disapproving looks, and a hundred different authorities on your craft.  It takes a thick skin to smile in the face of the critic and thank them for their input.  Do I believe that all performances should be praised?  Heavens no!  But I do think that there is a tactful way to praise the effort if you cannot praise the result.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani demands raw and honest performances

Almost, Maine, by John Cariani, demands raw and honest performances

One of the most telling paragraphs I’ve ever read about actors in performance is from a textbook on improvisation.  Greg Atkins, in Improv! A Handbook for the Actor, writes:

As an actor you must be aware of everything that is occurring onstage.  You must know your lines, your character, and your blocking.  You must instinctively wait for laughs to die down, find your light, smoke convincingly, make sure the safety is off on the prop gun, and hit your musical notes.  You must check your spacing in the dance number, quick change your costume and your character, maintain your accent, pick up the glass that happened to fall off the table, and be conscious of the other actors as well. (7)

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, though I’m sure anyone who has ever acted in a play could add a number of additional details to that record.  And it can be a ridiculous amount of stress to juggle.  Some people thrive on the stage.  Some buckle under the pressure.  Some know no fear; others must be coaxed onto the boards.

Bold.  Terrified.  Insecure.  Fearless.  All of the above.

Urinetown

The Act I Finale of Urinetown, the Musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman

Whatever you are, you must be quick.  Quick thinking.  Quick problem solving.  Quick recovery.  Quick analysis.  Quick inventory.  Quick adjustment.  Quick ad-lib.

And natural.  The audience must never know there was a problem—though the big ones are hard to mask entirely.  Ah, the thrill of live performance!

In our work, we must tap into emotions that we hide in public every day.  On stage, we act in ways that are questionable, admirable, laughable, and even damnable.  But these are the characters we explore.  We work hard to portray them, but they aren’t wholly us.  Just because we examine their choices doesn’t mean we condone them!

The climax of Iphigenia 2.0

The characters make tough choices in the climax of Iphigenia 2.0 by Charles Mee

In our training as actors, there are several different “methods” of learning (not to be confused with The Method made famous by Lee Strasberg).  I’ve always looked askance at any teacher’s declaration that the methodology they teach is the only one that results in success.  And I encourage my students to explore and try different approaches to acting, finding the one that best suits their needs and individuality.  Should it be driven by inner truth or physical action?  Or both?

Are there those I prefer?  Certainly.  I will always encourage my students to read and study Konstantin Stanislavki, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau; I will also share with them my personal concerns with the aforementioned Strasberg.

There are classes on emotional realism, movement and dance, voice, Shakespeare, physical technique, improvisation, musical theatre, stage combat, auditioning, the Greeks, commedia dell’arte, and film.  Chances are, if it can be used as a tool or defined as a style, someone somewhere teaches a class on it.

Honestly, I am a huge advocate for taking as many classes as you can because the body and voice are our instruments and they must be in good working order.  You must learn to act with your toes as well as your eyes, with your spine as well as your speech.

But the best instructors for acting are experience and life itself.

A scene from our December 2014 production of Proof by David Auburn

A scene from our December 2014 production of Proof by David Auburn

Experience will teach you how to recover from a costume malfunction, a set change mishap, or an actor’s missed entrance.  It will teach you how to hold for laughter and project your voice.  You’ll find the best routines for memorizing lines and warming up for a show.  Distractions in the house will be dismissed as if they weren’t there at all.  And you’ll gain confidence with the routine of rehearsals and performances.

But life . . . life will school you in a way that deepens your performance to a visceral level.  There are reasons why King Lear and Willy Loman are not played by young men—why Phaedra and Amanda Wingfield are not young women.

Yes, there are those out there with amazing natural abilities who rise to dominance in their teens and twenties.  And those performances will ripen with age, if they stick with the discipline and LEARN.  But, natural ability will only take you so far.  At some point, you have to hone your craft and strengthen your technique.  The value lies in the work.
And I want my students to grow in their craft with each passing year—driven by determination, buoyed by experience, and shaped by life’s difficulties.

So we work hard at this trade called acting.  And if we do a good job, maybe you will walk away with something profound, something new, something provoking, or something stirring after the lights have dimmed.

That’s our hope.  Always.

TEL

Just a Technician (or… The Importance of the Individual) – Part II

As promised, I continue to highlight the jobs done behind the scenes by our technicians who are so very essential to our success.  Please remember, what you read here is just a basic overview of what these hard-working individuals actually do during the production season.

Costumes
In costuming, the designer will deliver the renderings and research to the costume shop manager and crew.  They must then work together to pull items from stock, to rent from reputable warehouses, or to pattern and construct a new costume from scratch.  Most of the time, it’s a combination of all three approaches at ETBU.  Costumers’ work can also include dyeing, distressing, and altering.  Every detail on a new build, from the fabric to the trim, from the buttons to the thread color, is carefully considered in conjunction with a director’s approach, the actor’s complexion, and the lighting and scenic designers’ mix of colors.

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

The show is then handed off to the wardrobe crew who must plan, rehearse, and execute any quick changes that a play may demand.  Nothing is scarier than an actor who misses an entrance because of a wardrobe malfunction, so great care is taken to ensure a timely and complete change.

Cast members line up for costume parade, when the director approves the work done by the crew so far.

Cast members line up for costume parade, a time when the director approves the work done by the crew so far and addresses any problem issues

Makeup, Hair and Wigs
Makeup, hair, and wigs collaborate with the other design areas, especially costumes, to complete the look for an ensemble.  Once a designer has submitted drawings for each character, crews must work to fit the design to the theatre.  Lighter makeup is used in intimate spaces and more intense makeup is used in larger venues.  The designer and artists must work to balance foundation with the actor’s skin tone, execute special effects (which may include age, injury, or creature makeup), and master prosthetic additions like large noses or extended chins.  Wigs must be built or styled from stock.  And, if working with an actor’s natural hair, appointments are made to predetermine the preferred look.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency

Properties and Set Dressing
Properties and set dressing involve both hand props and those used to decorate the set.  Often these demand extensive research, especially for period plays.  Props are pulled from stock, borrowed from friends or family, purchased, or constructed from scratch.  Property crew members must set up tables backstage where each prop is labeled and stored during a performance.  Often props must be “tracked” as they change hands or make numerous exits and entrances in the course of a play.  Additionally, the props crew is responsible for any perishable foods needed for a production.  This may include cooking every night before a show as well as clean up after the performance has concluded.

Run Crew
Run crew (alternately called stage crew) are the individuals whose work is predominantly featured during the actual performances.  They move set pieces and furniture, man the fly rails to raise and lower scenic drops, open and close the curtains, and operate any special effects equipment including fog machines or special trap doors for the set.

Publicity and Box Office
We take great pains at ETBU to make sure that all our promotional materials present the necessary information in a professional manner.  This includes all our posters, programs (a good program can spark curiosity and conversation about the department), voice mails, web sites, and press releases.  Our front-of-house staff has responsibilities that can include design, proof reading, distributing posters, writing press releases, answering phone calls and emails from patrons, tabulating head counts, and totaling box office receipts.  The box office crew—and by extension our house manager and ushers—are the first people our patrons encounter whether for reservations or for will call pickup.  Naturally, it’s important to us that our guests be treated with courtesy and professionalism.  Positive word-of-mouth reviews about the entire experience are essential to our success.

A sample of posters from our productions.

A sample of posters from our productions

Phew.

Let me close by saying that we do not believe in sexist assignments.  Our female students learn to be confident carpenters and electricians, and our male students are expected to know how to handle a sewing machine and apply make-up.  Sometimes, when a student faces a challenging assignment in an area they have little experience with, he or she stumbles upon a hidden talent.  New confidence is found, new skills are discovered, and an opportunity avails itself for future employment.

Theatre truly personifies I Corinthians 12:15-19.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

I think of these verses often when I look at how many different specializations there are in the world of theatre and how these individuals must all work together—with respect for each other’s gifts—to create something completely dependent upon the ensemble.

There are many talents, but only one goal.

TEL

“So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance…”

In the United States, we are often taught that we can “achieve prosperity through hard work”; this is the essence of the American Dream.

The problem is, that isn’t exactly true.

There are a variety of factors that influence our success beyond just hard work. Among other things, genetics, social status, and (as much as we don’t like to hear it) plain ol’ dumb luck play huge roles in our successes and failures. Yes, hard work is almost always a necessary ingredient for the highest levels of achievement across all fields, but hard work does not guarantee success. (For more elaboration on this point, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

Week10 EthicsThere is a related dilemma I face as a professor, which is fresh in my mind as we approach Spring 2015 advising: what is my ethical responsibility in telling students whether or not their goals are achievable? Allow me to elaborate.

KINE 1301 Introduction to Kinesiology is a “Leadership Enhanced Course”. As part of that initiative, I ask my students to write about their long-term career goals. Inevitably, there are always students that write that their “Plan A” is to play professional basketball or football. Knowing that this response is coming, I usually have this ready: the most-recent version of a regular NCAA study that shows the miniscule chance of a person making a major professional sports league. I then further explain that the vast majority of THOSE successes are not from Division III. There were only nine D3 football players on NFL opening day rosters and there are only eight MLB players with any D3 baseball experience.  Furthermore, D3 representation in the NBA has been virtually non-existent for years.

“So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance…”

Usually these statistics help the student gain perspective. However, there are still those students that see the long odds and assume it is a challenge to be overcome. In other words, their reaction is pretty much like this…

In essence, I sometimes inadvertently encourage that small group to try even harder since their odds are so small, often to the detriment of other aspects of their college experience.

Now, the example I gave just deals with students that think they are going to be professional athletes. However, most of the circumstances I encounter in which students have unrealistic goals happen in a more scholastic environment. For example, the average GPA of students accepted to Physical Therapy programs is over 3.5 and climbing, so beyond sharing that information, how do I best-prepare a senior with a sub-3.0 GPA for the very likely circumstance that he or she will got get accepted into a program? What about a student that wants to teach (requiring a 2.75 GPA, at minimum) but that bombed out his or her freshman year before legitimately turning things around? Yes, that person may actually be a GREAT teacher, but the difficulty of digging out of a GPA hole must be realistically discussed, regardless of how hard the person works now.

Sometimes you just know.

The worst feeling I ever have as a professor occurs when I have the realization that a student isn’t going to “make it”. I am not referring to those times that a student is taking a class and does poorly enough to clinch an “F”, though that is discouraging. I am not even referring to those instances when a student leaves college entirely after multiple class failures, although that is sad.

No, the worst feeling I get happens when after first meeting with a student or after receiving the first assignment I immediately realize the student will be never successful at the college level; that is tragic. “But all students can be successful if they just work harder!” No, that is false. “Dr. Walker, that is overly negative and you are being defeatist!” Maybe, or maybe I am realistic.

To clarify, it VERY rarely happens that I have a student that cannot achieve; usually the problem is that the student does not achieve, despite being capable. ETBU has admissions standards that generally eliminate students that are not adequately prepared. Furthermore, we have a university-wide commitment to academic support that is much better than other university settings that I have encountered. Even including those students that do “fail out”, 99.9% of ETBU students have the prerequisite abilities and available support to be successful. Is it easier for some? Yes, but I honestly think that nearly all of our students can achieve and graduate. Most only need a redirection of priorities.

It is the 0.1% that bothers me. I am now in my 8th year back at ETBU as a full-time professor, and of the hundreds of students I have encountered in my courses I can think of less than a handful that fit this profile: it would not have mattered what they did, what I did, or what the Academic Success Office did. They were not going to be successful in college.

There’s the dilemma. Ethically, which is worse? To honestly think that a student cannot reach a goal and keep it to myself?  Or to tell a student that you don’t think a goal is achievable but it is?!

There is a psychological term known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It says that “unskilled individuals tend to suffer from illusionary superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate”; in short, it is believing in one’s self too much. This term helps explain how both in my role as a professor and in my former life as a college coach I have had athletes in my office that were Division III reserves explain to me that their talents were being misused and that they were professional-level  players. However, don’t you think that a large percentage of CEOs, presidents, generals, and other high-level achievers (such as athletes, i.e. Kobe Bryant) would be Dunning-Kruger effect “victims”? Isn’t success at that level predicated on the fact that those people have an irrationally high level of self-confidence? What percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs have “illusionary superiority”? When then, should anyone stifle that confidence?

Also, Muggsy Bogues was in Space Jam!

Also, Muggsy Bogues was in Space Jam!

I mean, how many people do you think told 5’3” Muggsy Bogues that he’d never make the NBA? (Check out this story.) How many people told Barack Obama that there’d never be a black president or told Bill Gates that people would never have a need for a personal computer? I wonder how Steve Jobs reacted when some people thought the iPad wouldn’t be successful because of the name.

As professors, we must intentionally seek out wisdom and discernment in all situations. In particular, I must help students discover and accept God’s path for them, even if that means a particular occupation (or college in general) is not a part of that plan.

WW

Small… Large… MEDIUM! I’m the MEDIUM!

“The medium is the message.”

Marshall Mcluhan

Photo Credit: Abode of Chaos via Compfight cc

This quote is one of the most famous phrases in the discipline of Communication Studies, and was originally voiced by Marshal McLuhan, a media scholar from the Toronto school of Communication Theory.

His point is that how you say something is just as important as what you say. (Click to Tweet)

In many cases, it may end up being even more important.

Studying Communication is so important to me, and what I really love, because it allows me (and every Comm scholar) to understand where other people are coming from, and what they are trying to say through the words they choose to convey their message. I get very excited for each new class – a chance to share my passion with a new group of students, and a chance for us to learn together about what Communication Studies can mean together.

I have loved Communication Studies since my first Communication class at Nebraska Wesleyan University in 2005. It was at this small, private university that I first heard McLuhan’s words. They have been repeated throughout my journey to a PhD, but it is only now that I’ve first made a connection between McLuhan’s message and Jesus’s.

That statement may seem shocking and sad, but ETBU is my first school environment where the integration of faith and learning is placed at such a high priority.

It is refreshing, to be honest.

At so many public schools, and even some religious universities, professors (and professors-in-training) are encouraged, pushed, even threatened to take religion out of the classroom so that we don’t offend anyone.

In my first semester at ETBU, I was struggling to bring my religious views into class because I felt as if it had almost been beaten out of me. But now, with the opportunity to reflect on how my discipline relates to faith and Christianity, I am struck by the complete obviousness of it all!

Allow me to show you what I mean…

Jesus was God’s son, sent to earth to deliver God’s message of salvation – to COMMUNICATE it to us! (Click to Tweet)

He lived a perfect life, and focused on sharing God’s mercy with the world – communicating even still. A connection to my discipline if I’ve ever heard one.

But the connection that really hit me over the head when I started thinking about McLuhan’s emphasis on the medium, is that we are the medium that God has chosen to spread his message today. That was the plan all along…remember… the Great Commission…

Bible Study

Photo Credit: rafa2010 via Compfight cc

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

To make this idea even more concrete, let me put it another way. I am the medium that is charged with spreading the message of Jesus. You are the medium. All of God’s followers are His chosen medium.

If we return again to McLuhan’s idea that the chosen medium for communicating a message is extremely meaningful, it must be a big deal that God picked us. We are the medium here, after all.

But why? Why us? Studying communication shows us that people who really believe their message, or have experienced something themselves, are often the most effective at passing their passion along to others.

restaurant

Photo Credit: jesuscm via Compfight cc

My former pastor used to use the analogy of restaurants: If you’ve eaten a great meal, and tell others about it, they will want to try out that restaurant too because you are so excited about it!

So, when I consider the importance of God picking US to be his medium, it makes me feel a lot of pressure to step up and do a better job. Also, I need to remember to trust myself, and God, and know that my excitement and passion will easily flow through trough my words.

After all, that’s how communication works.

AML

Critical Incident Questionnaire

As part of this “reflective process”, I chose to introduce podcast lectures in to my classroom. I am only covering one chapter per test via podcast and the rest are delivered traditionally in class. I need to also clarify that the “podcast” is really a SCREENR.com videocast. The students will watch the powerpoints while I lecture over them. After the podacst is posted, the next two classes ( 90 minutes each) are highly interactive. Students are expected to come to class having already read the chapter and listened to the lecture. This is technically called a “flipped classroom”, and is supposed to promote learning on a more interactive level. ( see more about this topic here: http://www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom/)

I wanted to get their feedback of the class as a whole & specifically the podcast lecture at midterm. The feedback I received was mostly helpful. I was able to understand the perception of students, and I was also able to clarify some of the misconceptions about the class. In summary, I feel like this was a good exercise. It helped me understand my student’s behavior, and I am more aware of their preferences. I believe clarifying the misconceptions of the class will really help moving forward.

I have categorized the feedback in to three different categories; Don’t like but can’t change, Things I can change, but I need your help; Things they like & don’t need to change.

  1. Don’t Like But Can’t Change
Student Feedback My Reaction & Reflection
Did not have time to listen to 30 min podcast The podcast is 30 minutes and lecture is generally 90 minutes. Find time to listen to lecture just like you would for any other homework assignment.
This is an undergraduate course not a graduate one. This is a misconception I corrected. I had mentioned that we use the same book in undergraduate & graduate. However, the graduate course covers twice the material on a much deeper level. I reassured them I am teaching on a undergraduate level.
Don’t like that attendance as a grade. I grade attendance to prepare you to be a professional. You must show up to work on time and your “absences” matter on the job. You don’t come to work, you don’t get paid.
A) How quiet everyone is and unwilling to talk.b) Don’t like having to tell personal stories or give examples about the topics we are learning.c) Talking one by one when we are assigned questions to answer in front of the group.d) Some students give answers that are not on topic I noticed that several students expressed a discomfort with the interactive part of class. I told the students that I will continue to call on students for answers and interaction. I explained that part of being a professional is being able to express one’s self in a group of people.  I also mentioned that it devalues the group learning experience when classmates do not talk on topic, or have not read before coming to class so they can’t talk on topic.

 

 

2. Things I can change, but I need your help

Student Feedback My Reaction & Reflection
Sometimes questions in class are confusing. Raise your hand if it is confusing & ask for clarification. I could type up questions and post them on the overhead or on blackboard ahead of time.
Discussion Board assignments not preparing me for the test. This is a misconception I was able to clarify. The purpose of discussion board assignments are for you to find articles about the topic we are discussing in the textbook and link it to a practical application. If you are not linking it to a practical application or topics on the test, then you are doing the assignment incorrectly.
In-class group discussion about discussion board topics. No one really contributes to the discussion. It is almost like they didn’t do it or they won’t talk. When I break the groups up, I was breaking them up into groups of 4-5. I now will break them up into groups of 2-3. This will encourage more one-on-one conversations. However, I need the students to be able to contribute in meaningful conversation.
A) Felt less engaged when I lecture over the slides.B) Slides talked about too fast I told the students to raise their hand or ask a question if they feel I am moving too fast. Also, when I am lecturing I will call on students to give me examples or answer questions about the topic. If the students are not liking to be called on individually or talking in-front of the group, I am not sure how I can engage them more during lecture. I told them I need their help on this, because I can only make lecture so exciting without interaction from the students.

3. Things they like & don’t need to change

Student’s Feedback My reflection
Acting out the topics with a partner& teaching to other classmates I think this is a great way for the student to apply and learn the material. However, it does somewhat conflict with the other feedback about students feeling uncomfortable talking in front of the class.
Podcast was easy to learn from. I think the podcast should supplement them when they learn and when they study.
Office hours & extra help is available. I have a few students that have come in and received extra help. I would like for more students to know this is a valuable option.
Study Guide are useful. I provide a study guide with about 80% of the material that will be on the test. I believe in the 80/20 rule. I give them 80% of the material to study and the other 20% they have to study on their own. I believe most students who do the study guide will pass the test, but if you want a ‘B’ or an ‘A’… you have to study on your own.
Examples & stories help me learn. I feel that examples help, but I tend to give these examples verbally instead of something written out or on the power points. I could give more structured case study assignments.

 

My Reflection on Teaching

Honestly …. Sometimes I find teaching emotionally draining. I have worked hard at separating myself from my teaching standards. But teaching is personal… or at least it should be. I care about my students and their wellbeing. However, I encounter situations every day that challenge me as a teacher. In an attempt to relieve some of the stress from teaching, I will reflect about some of the major topics.

I realize that I teach upper level courses. Upper level courses by definition should require more thought, studying, and higher level thinking types of activities and test. Thus, the nature of my courses will be harder if you only compare them to lower level general-study courses. I have gradually become at peace about this reality. It is not me that makes the material hard… the material itself is harder. I have an incredible task to develop critical thinking skills, scholarly writing, and conceptualization. All of these task cannot be accomplished through straight lecture and memorizing material. Students have to apply the knowledge they have in ways they may have never done.

Because of this reality, some students think that my class is “so much harder” or “so much work”. In part, this is because this is true. Sometimes I feel as if I am asking students to walk in the snow barefoot up a hill… lol.. JK… but seriously… here are two stories to explain.

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Scenario #1: Recently, a student said to me in class… “That’s just a lot of work to have to print out a journal article and bring it to class for in class discussion credit. Can we just print out the abstract?”

I paused… more for composure than anything… This was not the first time this student had openly complained about assignment directions.  I replied “This is college. Do it or don’t do it. If you want credit, you will do it the way the directions read.”

I could tell this specific student was upset with my response, but I could tell that another student was pleasantly surprised. The other student added “It’s really not that hard to print off an article.”   (I was so glad to have support from another student at this point.)

I stand by my comment to the first student. This is college… Do it or don’t do it. I hate to simplify my teaching philosophy to this level. But I think it is important for students to take responsibility of their actions (or in-actions).

Scenario #2: For the first test I do an in-class study session for all my classes. The requirement to attend the review session is that you come to class with a ¾ of the way completed review. I told them that the purpose of the review day is for them to get answers to the ¼ they had not completed and to ask me any question about the test. I emailed and told students that they would be sent home and not allowed to participate in the review if they did not bring a review. It also counted as a 10 point quiz grade. The purpose of review day is to teach them that they must start studying before the night before the test. This is also a great opportunity to build up their confidence before the test.

I had about 10% from each class that didn’t do the review. Those students showed up thinking I would not send them home. It was a sad day for that 10%. Just about every one of them left my class shocked and amazed.  Did I want to send them away? No. I can only lead a student to a review day, I can’t make them fill out their review… So, 90% of all of my students got the benefit of review. In retrospect, that’s not a bad percentage.

Moral of the story:

Students may not always like you, but in the end they will understand and appreciate you for having high standards. I know why I have high teaching standards, and I know it will benefit students in the long run. I also know that it is not always pleasant to be the one enforcing high standards. I would not be the person I am today if it was not for all the teachers that set high standards for me.

Reflective Prayer

Dear God,

Guide me in the best teaching practices. I am thankful you have put me in this profession. I pray that I will honor you with every interaction. Help me to be sensitive to student needs while also maintaining high standards. Be with me and my students as we are on this journey together. Help me to learn the lessons you would have me learn so that I can be the teacher you desire me to be.

AMEN!

Learning and teaching from an Expectancy Value Theory Viewpoint

The Expectancy Value Theory states that people’s behavior is directly related to their perception or belief in a given objective, and the value they attach to achieving said objective. Basically, people guesstimate the amount/type of work needed to achieve an outcome, and that they have preconceived ideas of how they will feel or what they will accomplish with the effort they provided.

Although this is a Consumer Behavior/ Marketing theory, I will attempt to describe my understanding of learning and teaching from this perspective.

Learners Assumptions: College students are paying customers. Students pay the university for the opportunity to expand their education, and for the opportunity to earn a college diploma. The university has developed curriculum to guide the student through the journey of intellectual maturity as they approach graduation. However, generally speaking, no refund or rebate is given if these objectives are not met. The consumer (college student) may discontinue college all together if the product (college) does not meet their expectations or may take their business elsewhere (go to another college).

It is safe for us to assume that college students have expectations of college. Based on these expectations, students exert the perceived effort to achieve those expectations.

So this got me thinking…..Is this the real difference between a student that reads before coming to class, and those that don’t? Is this the difference between students that come to my office to ask clarification about a test question or ask me to read their rough draft prior to the due date?

IF WE HELP CHANGE student’s perception of how they can be successful in my class or college, can I create an environment that allows them to have greater achievements? (change expectations = change behavior = change outcomes)

Teaching Assumptions: Teachers provide an instructional service that facilitates the educational experience.  Just like the service industry or any company you prefer over another…some are better than others (even if they deliver the same results).  As teachers get to know their student’s learning styles, they adapt their teaching materials and instructional delivery method to serve the students better. In an ideal world, teachers will know exactly how to successfully facilitate learning, and it could be done is a systematic way. However, this is not that simple.

In “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” , Stephen Brookfield highlights that teachers do not always know what helps or hurts the learning process in their classrooms. He also suggest that Teachers must simply ask questions about the learning process in order to understand what is REALLY going on from the students perspective. For example, Brookfield explains that group activities do not always facilitate learning. Sometimes students are embarrassed to talk amongst their peers, or one peer dominates the conversation. So, just because group activities and discussion are generally good, they may not always facilitate learning.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be using a “critical incident questionnaire” to evaluate how teaching and learning is interacting in my classrooms. I hope to discover what I am doing that helps students learn, and what I am doing that prevents them from engaging like they want to. The end goal is to improve desired behavioral outcomes towards learning, and increase the total value assumption of my class.

Conclusion: Learning and teaching is an interactive process. I believe students think they know what they need to do to be successful in my class. Some demonstrate that well, and it takes very little effort on my part to get them to actively participate in the learning process. I self-identify with this type of learner, and I understand that it is easier for me to teach 20-30 students that are always prepared and contribute to class. However, I see few students that fit into this ideal learner category.

I am confused when I find students unprepared for in-class discussion, a quiz, or are simply playing on their phone during my class. I ask myself… Do they do these things because they think this behavior will make them successful? Did I not tell them my expectations ahead of time? Do they not see value in my class? Do they not feel like they can be successful? Do they know what being a good student means?

These are hard questions to ask… And an even harder question is … Can I change their perceived belief or value that they have of my class? Should I take this responsibility or is this the responsibility of the learner? How do I create an environment that increases the student’s perceived value of my class?

AND.. if I do find a way to increase the learning experience this semester…. Will it work if I do it again next semester?

Lighting the Torch …

Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc

“We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.” Ben Sweetland

I plan to use this blog to help me think critically about what goes on in my classroom. I will be evaluating how my behavior influences students, and searching for better ways to interact and teach my students.  I am curious to what I will discover. I acknowledge that I don’t necessarily do things wrong ( or RIGHT), but I am willing to evaluate what could be better.

I hope to gain confidence and reassurance in many ways, but I also hope this challenges me to try new teaching methods. Below I will explain my assumptions as a professor going into a new semester. I am excited to see if these they will change or stay the same over the next year of reflection.  

Assumptions pre-reflection:

Student expectations/assumptions: I believe students should have a natural curiosity and desire to learn. They should read their textbook to get the basic information, & interact in class to develop a deeper understanding. Students should think critically about topics and learn how to apply the information to their future profession. Students should look at academic struggle as a way to grow personally and professionally.

Professor expectations/assumptions: The professor should facilitate discussion to enhance the material they learn on their own. The professor should come prepared with current and accurate knowledge. They should lecture on topic, provide time for questions, and link the material to a future profession. Professors should also develop test and quizzes in such a way that students know they must study the material on a deeper surface than memorization.

I look forward to see where this journey takes me!

- Dr. McRee