2 Jul 2019

“You have permission!” – Thoughts on the upcoming academic term…

Submitted by Jeffrey R. Raker, University of South Florida

I know it’s July and the upcoming academic term is the last thing you are thinking about. Nevertheless, in eight weeks, many of us will begin to see traffic build outside our offices as students descend upon campus. It sounds daunting, parking is going to get worse, ungraded exams will pile up, and the line at the coffee shop is going to be never ending. I get it… but there’s an opportunity to make a change coming, to do something different in our classes that only comes at the beginning of each term, a chance to experiment!

At this point in my career, transforming my class is old hat. I get bored easily; my efforts to vary what I do is more for me than for my students. Some semesters it’s about flipping lectures, other semesters it’s about creating weekly practice exams, lately it’s been deleting and adding content. (And, for an organic chemist deleting and adding content is heretical! *sarcasm*) The newness of course changes keeps me loose, keeps me alert. I like the rush of not knowing if my choices will work out; I like not knowing where lectures are going to end up. 

I get that not all of us are as willing to make such radical changes. We each need to find our own level of comfort in the classroom. But I want to address something about what I do, about what we all choose to do, that became evident during a workshop I helped facilitate this summer:

Who gave me permission to do something different?

Surprise! I don't know! I really don’t know! 

I can, however, list everyone that would prefer I didn’t have permission and list everything that keeps me from doing more. And yes, I’d love to do more. But, I’m happy to have found permission to play, to experiment and to try things out. Sure, students have complained, colleagues have complained… at times, I’ve complained! What I do, though, is purposeful, and when I’ve been able to articulate that creating environments conducive to learning is at the root of that purpose, I’ve found support from my students, my chair, and my college.

At the workshop this summer, a colleague was struggling with choosing to eliminate course content to make room for an active and engaging approach to teaching a more important content area. With an audacity that I’m told comes with being tenured, I offered, “You have permission!” I really didn’t have the authority to give permission. But it awakened an authority in the colleague that they had the authority to choose, they had the authority to put better teaching ahead of a canon of content knowledge.

There is power in permission! 

(There’s power in doing and then asking for forgiveness if necessary as well.) 

What do you need permission to do differently this upcoming academic term? What new approach to teaching do you need to incorporate? What needs to be cut from your class? What do you need to be doing to create a better learning environment for your students?

Comment below with something you’re looking to do different this upcoming academic term!

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We are coordinating Organic Chemistry 1 this fall for the first time in my institution's history. Okay... so the instructor's of the course needed some permission from others to do this, but we were part of the group that gave ourselves permission. I'm excited to see how the course will improve as three of us share our "best practices" in creating a coordinated learning environment for our students.

Thans Jeff! Despite my best intentions, sometimes my innate rule-following comes out and I have to be reminded to break a few unspoken rules.

This past year I decided to change the way that I approach MOs and other fundamental concepts in my foundations and advanced inorganic course. I decided that I was tired of skipping over the organometallics part because I just had to cover some of the fundanmentals in greater detail. The first pass went well, but this next time (spring), I think I'm going to lean into flipping that section a little more. Decentralizing the lecture in a course I've taught for over a decade has been challenging but fun.