From student to teacher, part 2

April 25, 2010

Well, I’ve been bad about writing—mostly because I’m actually teaching now. Since active reflection is critical at this point, I’m going to skip over 2-3 months of course development, hopefully to return to it later. See: part 1.

I was prepared for quiet students, but now I sympathize more than ever with my past professors and TAs. Isn’t that the great challenge of teaching, though: to help students find their own voices? To then, at some point down the road, get them to feel as passionately about the material as you do?

I don’t think it helped that it took four weeks even for just the roster to settle down. At the last and “final” count, I have 11 students from a variety of disciplines, including Anthropology, Design | Media Arts, Economics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science.

The first week was very experimental. I had a lesson plan, but I found that real life didn’t often abide by the time limits I’d allotted. And I was all nerves. Thus there were threads of ideas and fragments of conversations that were later dropped entirely. Even the introductory icebreaker fell flat, rang hollow. I knew that some of this would be alleviated when people started opening up, but I didn’t know how long that would take, and I couldn’t wait.

So Week 2 was a little different. I tried showing some demonstrations, including an implementation of Conway’s Game of Life. Again, though, I’d feel like I was babbling. I was gratified when students had actually done the readings. (Each week, I require them to write 2-3 paragraphs in response to guiding questions that I pose.) Although discussion picked up in comparison to the previous week, I had my first worries of a different kind. One of my students was older, in his 30s or 40s, and he was clearly familiar with the material. Though he had much to offer on the topic, he began to lead the discussion in a way that, I felt, both undermined my authority and—more importantly—intimidated the other students. Although this was initially disconcerting, I was prepared to consult with him individually if the need arose; however, he later sent me an email saying that he couldn’t stay in the class with his current commute and academic circumstances.

I decided to do something a little different in Week 3 by hosting a small debate. The topic: “Are We Spiritual Machines,” excerpts of which were assigned for the week. I split students into three groups: one “for” strong AI, one against, and the third as a panel of judges. I guess I had less experience with debates than I thought I did; by letting the groups have a back-and-forth conversation, the second group to go didn’t have a real chance to deliver their opening argument. Between making each side deliver a closing statement, having the judges critique each group, and giving the groups a chance to rebut, the logistics of the debate were a little fuzzy. Still, I think it was a good way to close this particular unit on “Intelligence, Consciousness, and Humanity.”

To be continued in the next installment.

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