Ready, Set, Teach! Highlights from the April 16 roundtable luncheon

Published: April 30, 2019

Guest post by Annelie Rugg, Director & Humanities CIO, HumTech

If you are looking to truly understand the reality of teaching and learning at UCLA, go to an EPIC “Ready, Set, Teach!” roundtable luncheon for an invaluable two-hour immersion into the hearts and minds of today’s humanities students and instructors. It’s impossible not to gain new insights! As someone whose job is to find ways to facilitate more impactful teaching and learning through technology, I drew a number of key takeaways from the spring quarter roundtable held in the YRL Main Conference Room on April 16. With thanks and apologies to the student and faculty speakers at each of the three tables, I highlight here just a small portion of the observations, experiences and insights they so thoughtfully shared.

Know your students: Transfer student voices. Resilience, pragmatism and an indomitable commitment to their educational goals are what enable transfer students Leia Yen (English), Monica Serrano (Comparative Literature) and Michael Rosenkrantz (English and History) to weather the challenges of having only two years to wring every last bit of learning and connection out of the precious opportunity that they clearly realize to be their UCLA education. (Employers, take note! I would hire any of them in an instant, based just on their grit and resourcefulness.) In response to some of the unique challenges transfer students share — a compressed (effectively 18-month) degree timeline, the sudden shift from semesters to quarters, little to no prior experience producing university-level research, and no prior relationships with student peers or professors — these students accept responsibility for learning how to succeed, revealing a few transfer-student best practices: the need to accept what’s possible and apply positivity to make things work for yourself; knowing every quarter has to matter; using every resource offered (office hours, research support), and building relationships with professors. For those of us looking to better support their learning experience, these transfer students asked for nothing more than a greater awareness of how the transfer student experience differs from the traditional four-year experience. Ideas for further consideration: guidance on key differences and requirements of the quarter system compared with semesters; information on every syllabus about resources for research support and stating clear learning outcomes and student requirements; creating office hours specific to addressing transfer student concerns; and “chunking” student deliverables across the quarter.  The nice thing is that putting these into practice would benefit any student. Meanwhile, if these students are any indication, the Humanities continues to draw transfer students. In the words of Corban Lethcoe (Philosophy), a new student advisor and RA in a transfer-student dorm, “It’s about knowledge and having the tools to take on the world, which is what the Humanities gives us.”

Hot moments in the classroom. Led by Carla Suhr (Lecturer, Spanish and Portuguese) and Emma Naliboff-Pettit (Program Director, Intergroup Relations Program), this roundtable focused on the training and best practices instructors need to manage “hot moments” in the classroom or discussion section when “the air is sucked out because something has happened or is about to”. These practices are crucial to ensuring the kinds of positive outcomes UCLA seeks by leveraging diversity and designing for inclusive pedagogy. My first recommendation: find a way to engage Emma, who clearly knows her stuff, and whose job is to do this kind of training for TAs and others. Some key takeaways from this discussion: set ground rules for participation, so students know what’s expected of them; understand the difference between discussion (which is based on research) and debate (in which someone is trying to win); preventions vs. interventions, i.e., the more preventions you put into place, the faster you can intervene and the fewer interventions needed. While I was at this roundtable, I learned of two actionable ideas. The first is write a community agreement for your students, which is a rubric for participation. The more specific, the better, e.g., what pronouns to use, what to do when conflict arises (is it ok to step out), etc. The second is a tool for dealing with a hot moment called “the 3 C’s”: 1-Clarify – ask a clarifying question of the speaker (e.g., “Tell me what you mean by that”); 2-Change the conversation to experiences by asking the speaker to share a story from their life that illustrates their point; 3-Consider (and reflect) – ask the students to reflect on what they’ve heard, either in pairs/small groups (in a smaller class) or, in a large lecture, in breakout groups of 10 coupled with a required reflection piece for homework.

More time for me: balancing research and teaching. It was a rare privilege for me to hear Professors Ursula Heise and Richard Yarborough from the Department of English share, not just about the pragmatic aspects of balancing professional demands, but especially about the personal or philosophical choices that enter into filling the shoes of a world-class scholar and dedicated teacher. Both acknowledged the need to interpret for oneself the mixed signals one may receive about teaching and learning in an R1 university. Professor Yarborough emphasized self-awareness about one’s priorities as an academic, and recommended finding ways to do what you value doing, while also being aware that there will be consequences that don’t always result in extrinsic rewards in making certain choices. “Prioritizing the investment in teaching is first and foremost an internal process.” Professor Heise reminded us of one such consequence – the longer timeframe for women to progress from Associate to full Professor — due to the tendency for women faculty to spend significantly more time on teaching prep and grading. Both professors remained positive about keeping the student focus, and recognize the ongoing need to develop more effective ways to evaluate teaching, so teachers can understand what and how to improve. The humanity of the humanities was my key takeaway in hearing from these two accomplished professors. “You get better at managing a level and then you graduate to new levels of demands, so you never feel that ‘things are managed’,” said Professor Heise. For those of us looking to support teachers, these professors welcome grading and teaching innovations, especially in a quarter system with little spare time. Knowing how much these professors really care about their students, I am inspired to help.