Teaching Prep or Pepping up my Teaching?

I have spent a week preparing for teaching my third-year module Making Men: Masculinities in England 1700-1918. I’ve produced a mini version of my module booklet to give to students as hard-copy and a full version to put on the module’s Moodle site. I’m now going through the module on Moodle, compiling general information and specific guidance for assignments (and the many rules, regulations and rubrics that go with this). And in doing all this, it has struck me how much my teaching practice has changed over the last couple of years thanks to social media. I think this is a GOOD THING. Although I notice that for every good idea I manage to come up with (or copy from other teachers’ advice kindly shared via social media), there are issues I have got to tackle – from my own perceptions about what my role is to second-guessing what students will think.

Hand drawing a thumbs upFirst – web resources. It is now to find useful web resources for every topic we cover. Okay, that is pretty standard , so where’s the problem? Well, for one thing the lovely website or YouTube video I found last year doesn’t always exist this year. So I have to spend ages checking every link. And, AARGH, shouldn’t I really be checking what has been published in the area rather than aimlessly Googling? More problematically, new sites and stories regularly appear and I worry that I’m missing vital ones despite keeping up through Twitter and Facebook. One way I’ve tackled this is by curating websites on Bundlr like this one on Masculinities which I share with students. I also now use a Module Facebook Group where I can immediately pass on any interesting links that come up during the semester.

I tried this for the first time on a second-year module last year (discussed in a blog here) and noticed that students were also sharing useful resources that they’d found. The problem is that all these great sites are somewhat lost in the scrolling-status-wasteland of Facebook. This time, I’m actively asking students to post the useful links on FB and I’ll then build a Pinterest Board for their finds with their name and comment attached. I’ve built up some images on a Manliness Pinterest Board for my own research (which I’ll also share). There’s also a good example of what I want to achieve from Oxford Brookes University and there are some interesting tips here. My goal is to build up resources that the students can access and share outside the module – and which other people interested in the history of masculinities can enjoy. This is what Oxford Brookes’ DMELD (I had to look up what this acronym stands for: Digital Media and E-learning Developer)  Tom Cosgrove just described to me as ‘Legacy Resources.’ It looks like more and more of us are having to develop these to keep up. I also like the idea of this student-led set of resources because it passes on to my students what social-media savvy academics are discovering – that sharing and collaboration are better than competition in Higher Education. So – let’s see what happens with my Pinterest venture.

Second – social media and research. I also now want to provide the students with relevant blogs for their assignments. Having written my own over the last year and increasingly impressed by other people’s research blogs (here’s some examples on my Bundlr) I am keen to get students to read this often cutting-edge research. Of course that then means I need to reassure the students that it is okay to use blog posts in their assignments (and show them how to cite them) otherwise it must seem like I’m trying to double-up their workload by offering published and ‘unpublished’ writing. It is also raising lots of questions for me, which I haven’t got answers to yet. I wonder – are they suspicious of unpublished work that isn’t confidently packaged in a journal or book covers? How do I tackle this? Shouldn’t I create tasks that help students identify the connections and differences between blog posts and published research? Or should that be done in the introductory ‘how to do History’ modules that first-years encounter? Does the need to identify and reconcile different kinds of ‘academic’ writing/ideas increase the level of complexity unnecessarily? Should I therefore be adapting learning outcomes? It is going to be a case of learning as I go!

Thirdly – my teaching style and quality! I’m always keen to deliver my teaching in as interesting a way as possible. So I now prep by seeking out seminar techniques that might be both functional and entertaining. A selection of primary sources with questions can only go so far! Basically, I am always desperate for new ways to get the students to interact with their topic. A recent Twitter discussion has made me wonder if I ought to be supplying #twitterstorians Twitter Handles to students to follow. I might ask students to tweet about classes (which will help them realise how public this platform is!). As @andykesson commented, using Twitter before and after classes is a ‘Great opportunity to broaden active engagement’.

I am also thinking of asking students to interpret Google Ngram graphs for some seminar-topics (following Stephen Gregg’s lead, who talks about this here) – perhaps using the word ‘manly’ and ‘manliness’. I’ll also use Word Clouds more often, I promise myself, because (I LOVE them, but also) these are great ways to notice patterns and trends in language. In my first session I’m planning on providing the students with a Word Cloud of ALL my data collected under the keyword searches of manly/manliness and seeing what they make of this in terms of associated themes. Of course, this is why I am happiest teaching modules built on aspects of my own research because I simply can’t do this without my own bank of material. These are students who will be working flat out on their dissertations, so I also hope that combining my research practice into the lectures and seminars will inspire them to tackle their dissertation research and writing in different ways. I’m not entirely altruistic in doing this. Ideally, it doesn’t just help the students think through the topic, it pushes along my thinking on my research!

All in all, incorporating social media in Higher Education teaching seems to build in a level of student-teacher interaction which is more balanced – less the expert scattering pearls of wisdom, more an openness to communication about what interests them and me. It also discloses the processes of research and writing more – with blog posts showing the journey that scholarship takes from inception to peer-review publication. Perhaps that (even if only subconsciously) helps students realise how much effort, difficulty, uncertainty and wrong-turns go into writing – they’re not alone in this because professionals suffer too! But it is not just about teaching-prep – it is about assessing my teaching. I also hope that adopting social media makes my teaching more innovative. I know I get bored if I do the same thing each year – and social media certainly opens up the possibilities out there.

I would love to hear what students as well as teachers think!

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