Category Archives: First Year Reflections

Reflection on a First Year

This post is the fifth in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Michael Niedzielski, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of North Dakota

Who among us, as educators, does not want their students to apply classroom knowledge to the real world and to think critically? After my first two years of teaching after grad school and many formal and informal discussions and workshops on engaging students with active learning techniques, problem-based learning and service learning that filled my head with various pedagogical methods, I approached my first year of teaching at UND with excitement as I was ready to incorporate some of these student focused techniques in my technology courses. My experiences with one of these courses, Geog 471/L Cartography & Visualization are the focus of this blog entry.

I wanted to incorporate active learning techniques in this technology course because of the passive, teacher-to-student information transmission that I experienced as a student and teaching assistant in this and similar technology courses. While I personally succeeded in such a non-engaging environment to grow my critical thinking skills, I quickly discovered during my first experiences as a teacher that such an experience is not necessarily true of all students. Moreover, I was not a big fan of separating the theoretical from the meaningful real-world applied context, thinking that it should be possible for students to work on a project that is meaningful beyond the university walls. A cartography course seemed like a great opportunity because maps are communication tools and they can be deployed in the service of a local community. Thus, the idea of a semester-long service-learning community mapping project idea was born. Instead of conventional final projects being mere stand-alone exercises based on faux scenarios, this non-conventional approach allows students to simultaneously demonstrate and apply knowledge learned in class by fulfilling real community mapping needs.

The fall 2011 Geog 471/L course was run as a service learning version. The idea of a service learning course is that the benefits accrue to the students and the community, because the students engage with the local community, experience how their work can help local problems, and expose their work to the larger community, and the community receives tangible products that help to solve local problems and promote community cooperation, and experiences how the academic ivory tower can help them. Specifically, the students worked with the Near North Neighborhood community in Grand Forks, including local residents, the city’s Urban Development department, the area’s city council member and UND’s Community Engagement Center. The students listened to community needs and developed maps based on that input. They interacted with the community for their data needs, and presented their maps at the end of the semester to the community. Maps topics included neighborhood capital improvements by the Knight Foundation, sidewalk conditions, or area services among others.

By some accounts the course was successful, though on reflections some aspects could be improved. Though hard to assess, students seemed more committed and worked harder to produce cartographic output of higher quality than conventional output. Students commented that they felt these maps meant something and that if they failed they would let other people down, not just themselves. After the semester was over, students volunteered to make minor revisions to the maps prior to printing that were then distributed to the local community. One student, being inspired by this project, expressed a desire to perform something similar when becoming a teacher after the doctorate degree. However, apart from one or two students expressing their dislike with service learning and public presentation aspects, some students indicated that they felt rushed and overburdened with work toward the end of the semester. On reflection, that is a fair argument as in the last two weeks of class they were still collecting data for the maps and designing them, preparing for the presentation of their map drafts as well as working on the last, somewhat complex, lab assignment with Thanksgiving in the middle of everything. Tweaking the lab schedule so that there aren’t gaps between successive assignments as well as reducing some less complex labs to one week would help. Another aspect that I need to pay more attention to in the future is to keep track of student progress in the community mapping project, checking in with them earlier and more frequently so that data collection happens earlier and the focus of the end of the semester is more on map design. Some students also indicated they would have preferred more interaction in class meetings. While I did incorporate group work and discussions on map critique, I want to improve that assignment as well as include others on topics that demand critical thinking, such as map projection choice.

As I am reflecting on my almost completed first year at UND, I believe the support that UND provided me has helped me in many ways. The bus tour and Alice T. Clark program have allowed me to make connections with new faculty like myself and other established faculty on campus and continue to think about and expand my engagement with the scholarship of teaching and learning. The formal monthly meetings have been important in that regard, but I want to highlight the importance of the connections made with new faculty that allow informal exchange of ideas on teaching and research and to decompress after the stress of everyday life as an educator.

Reflections on My First Year at UND

This post is the third in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Julia Ernst, Assistant Professor of Law, University of North Dakota School of Law

Dr. Anne Kelsch, who leads the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program for new UND faculty, asked me to submit reflections about my first year teaching at the University of North Dakota School of Law.  I readily agreed, as I have had such a wonderful experience since my arrival in North Dakota.  Looking back over the past ten months, three major themes emerge that have significantly benefited my teaching:  UND’s strong support for new faculty, the mentoring and guidance provided by my law school colleagues, and our students’ enthusiasm about experimenting with new methods of learning.

The University of North Dakota devotes substantial resources to ensuring that new members of the faculty are well supported in all three primary aspects of our roles as professors – teaching, scholarship, and service.  During the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in January, I described UND’s programs to faculty from other universities, who expressed surprise and great interest in learning more about them, giving me the impression that UND is at the cutting-edge in offering this depth of support.  For example, the UND Bus Tour led by President Robert Kelley just before the start of the academic year enables incoming faculty to learn about our new home state of North Dakota, the communities from which many of our students originate, and key economic factors such as agriculture and energy that will shape the future careers of many of our students.  The UND Office of Instructional Development (OID) provides numerous resources to enhance pedagogy, such as On Teaching (a UND newsletter), The Teaching Professor (a national newsletter), the On Teaching lunch seminars, and books such as Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. OID also offers support for programs such as the two-day Collegiate Learning Assessment Performance Task Academy at North Dakota State University to help faculty develop exercises designed to enhance students’ critical thinking and analytical skills.  I will also be participating in the Teaching with Technology Workshop sponsored by the Center for Instructional & Learning Technologies, as well as the Teaching with Writing Course Development Workshop sponsored by OID and the Writing Across the Curriculum program.  Finally, through the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program, including its seminars, reading materials, mentorship support, retreat, and other events, I have gained innovative ideas about how to become a better scholar, teacher, and active contributor to my department and to the university as a whole.  These trainings and materials have provided me with fresh insights and teaching methods with that I will continue to utilize over the coming years.

Since my arrival at the UND School of Law, I have benefited tremendously from the warm welcome, mentoring, and guidance provided by my colleagues at the law school.  Their generosity in sharing insights about pedagogy and scholarship, information about events and speaking opportunities, course materials and other resources, and their friendship, has made my transition to UND smooth, enjoyable, and stimulating.  I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to work in such a collegial environment with a faculty dedicated not only to maintaining the highest standards in teaching and scholarship, but also to fostering constant improvement.  The law school supported my participation in the Workshop for New Law Teachers and the Workshop on Women Rethinking Equality held consecutively in Washington, DC last summer and sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools.  My colleagues have shared resources from the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning and have compiled a collection of books in the faculty lounge on best practices in legal education, which have proven to be invaluable.  Moreover, they support using alternative approaches in the classroom, creating an environment that enables and encourages us to try new teaching methodologies and share the results through our informal discussions and through the evaluation process, so we can each learn from one another.

Finally, I am grateful that our students have generally demonstrated substantial enthusiasm about participating in a variety of learning and teaching methodologies (as compared to the traditional Socratic method of legal education to which I was exposed as a law student a few years back).  For example, the students in my Health Law seminar provided feedback on an informal course evaluation that I conducted part-way through the semester to elicit their input and observations about various components of the course.  The following segments describe facets of the seminar along with examples of student responses:

•    A typical format for our classroom discussions began with a dialogue about the reading assignments with the entire class, followed by the students working in small groups to come up with solutions to problems outlined in the reading materials.  A student commented that “I love interactive discussion because you get to learn and benefit from the diverse backgrounds and opinions of your classmates… I like to discuss the main concepts and then transform that discussion into policy debates/problems in small groups.”

•    Each student interviewed, and was interviewed by, another colleague in the class to draft a mock Advance Health Care Directive (otherwise known as a “living will”).  The goals of this exercise were 1) to educate the students about Advance Health Care Directives, 2) to enable them to practice their interviewing skills with mock clients, and 3) to allow them to gain experience having conversations about difficult issues, such as death and dying, end-of-life decision-making, how religious and other perspectives influence major life decisions, and so on.  A student commented that “This exercise is critical if we want to understand the impact it has on end-of-life issues.”  Another wrote “I felt this was a great way to think about and practice client interviewing, and how to establish rapport with a client on sensitive issues.”

•    The students worked in small groups both in and outside of class to draft a public comment on a proposed administrative rule by a federal government agency, which they then submitted to the agency.  In response to a question about this exercise, one student wrote “Very interesting.  Have used regulations.gov in other courses now.  Great exercise.”

•    As a primary learning and assessment mechanism in this course, the students write a major legal research paper on a specific health law issue.  They select and post their topics on our course website during the second week of the semester, and each must be different from any of their classmates’ topics.  Throughout the course, they post interim assignments related to their papers, such as a research assignment, a 1-2 page paper topic statement, a detailed outline and initial bibliography, and a first draft.  They are encouraged to read and learn from their colleagues’ posts, fostering a very interactive and collaborative process.  A student commented: “The preliminary assignments greatly help us to stay on track.  It was the perfect alternative approach, so we won’t be scrambling at the last moment.”

•    We had trainings on 1) researching health law with librarians from the Law Library, the Medical School’s Library of the Health Sciences, and the Center for Rural Health; 2) interviewing skills with the Career Services Director (since part of their research assignment included interviewing experts on their paper topics), and 3) writing and editing skills with the Director of the UND Writing Center.  A student commented that the research training was “very helpful – reminds us of how many areas of research we have available to us and keeps class interesting, too.”  With respect to the interview training, one wrote that “I liked this a lot, not just for our interview assignments, but for future use.”  A student noted that the Writing Center training was “Very, very good.  I have used their services twice because I have trouble fleshing out all my thoughts on paper in a concise way.”

•    During the last several weeks of class, the students each gave 25 minute presentations (including Q&A) on their paper topics, which were videotaped.  I gave each of them a DVD of their presentations, which I asked them to watch before our individual meetings to discuss their draft papers.  They were required to come prepared to discuss at least one aspect that they had done well, as well as something that they would change.  Although some cringed at the prospect of seeing themselves on video, most expressed that the exercise was useful and was not as intimidating as they had initially thought it would be.

•    At several points throughout the semester, I distributed 3 x 5 cards and asked the students to complete a two-minute “quick-write” exercise, jotting down on one side of the card factors that would positively affect, and on the other side of the card factors that would negatively affect, a particular activity (such as working effectively in teams, managing emotions that could arise in conjunction with a health law practice, having difficult conversations on controversial issues, giving effective presentations, conducting interviews, developing successful legal careers, and getting what they want to out of law school).  We then discussed their responses with the entire class.  With respect to these exercises, a student commented that “They make me stop and think critically, which I often don’t do otherwise.”  Another wrote:  “Reflecting periodically is an effective tool for health law and hard conversations.  I think it’s important to do, and it surprisingly goes fast.”

Of course, in addition to reflecting upon aspects of the course that they liked, the students also provided insightful appraisals of components that could be improved in future years.  For example, one suggested that I provide more detailed feedback on the public comment exercise.  Another recommended that I emphasize in the prior week how emotionally challenging the exercise on the Advance Health Care Directive could be, discussing end-of-life issues.  A third advocated for inviting a speaker who practices health law to lead a discussion in class with the students.  Yet another suggested having the due dates on weekdays instead of weekends, noting that “I don’t have Internet at home, so I have to walk all the way to campus to turn in an assignment on Sunday.”  Several suggested that the reading materials and work-load be reduced or that the number of credit hours should be increased.  I appreciate their observations and will carefully consider all of their comments in preparing for my next Health Law seminar.

To conclude, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to my colleagues at the law school and to the university community for making my first year at the University of North Dakota so fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.  I look forward to continuing to learn from everyone here of ways in which I can improve my performance as a teacher, scholar, and fellow servant of the law school, university, community, and profession.

First Year Reflection

This post is the third in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Cheryl Hunter, Educational Foundations and Research, University of North Dakota

As a new faculty member here at UND I was honored when asked to contribute to the Teaching Tuesday Blog. My “assignment” was to reflect upon my first year of teaching. My initial thought was, “that was a long time ago.” In 1997 I walked into an elementary classroom and was terrified- thank goodness students were all around 3 ½  feet high and too excited to notice my nerves. My students today are a bit taller and some a bit less excited but I still get nervous those moments before class. Even though I might initially consider 1997 my “first year,” in all reality, every year since then has been filled with “first year of teaching” reflections.

Every new year, every new semester, even every new class session is a “first” for me. Let me explain. To me, teaching is fundamentally a process, a process always evolving and never mastered. Yes, the content while essential is in many ways static. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that there are not new concepts, applications, theories, and discoveries as new research and ideas emerge. However, teaching that content changes constantly, with each new session and with each new student. From the previous class session to the upcoming one, we enter the classroom in a different time and place with students who, while they may look remarkably the same (same pajama pants and flipflops or suit and tie as last time), have inevitable changed in some way over the course of the day or the week. We have all taken in new knowledge, theories, experiences that result in reflections and new thoughts. In many ways, we never see the same student twice. In fact, they are likely different upon leaving each class from when they entered. We may not ever even notice all the changes students make or growth they accomplish, we simply plant the seeds. Likewise, we are never the same teacher after we spend a day in the classroom, students have a profound effect upon us; this is not a one-way relationship and while I hope to impact my students I can guarantee they impact me.

So, if teaching is always an act of becoming, becoming a better teacher, then what have I learned? I guess I would say this year of “firsts” I have learned two things. First, never underestimate the complexity of the task. Second, students will forget what you say but never forget how you made them feel. Okay, I actually borrowed those sayings. The former comes from the Dalai Lama and the latter from Maya Angelou. However, they do summarize my year of “firsts” at UND.

Never underestimate the complexity of the task. Teaching is a great feat of planning, reading, thinking, reflecting, creating, … and that is just in the prep work! In the teaching act we have to engage, think on our feet, reflect in the moment, and bring forward storehouses of knowledge to share and explain to students. That is no small feat! But this year I tried not to recreate the wheel and finally realized that teaching does not have to be an act in isolation. We have great colleagues that have taught for years with stockpiles of wisdom and a wealth of resources to excite and inspire learners. I was so happy to learn about the Office of Instructional Development. Imagine, an entire office dedicated to the act of good planning, design, and teaching.

Teaching is part science; we know more and more about how students learn and can connect the brain and cognitive acts to good pedagogy. Teaching is also part art; we know that there is beauty in good teaching and harmony when those teachable moments arise and we feel the learning in action. However, both the science and art of teaching takes time, practice, skill, and commitment to the craft but not necessarily in isolation. I would love to see more team-taught interdisciplinary courses because not only do students benefit from the multiplicity of experiences and expertise but faculty benefit from collaborating in the act of teaching. I learn more about my teaching when I collaborate than when I enter the classroom alone. So, never underestimate the complexity of the task but don’t go it alone.

This leads me to my second point, as teachers we have the potential to imprint upon the human mind and spirit. It was John Steinbeck that captured the essence of teaching as an art and the medium as the human mind and spirit. “A great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit (John Steinbeck).  However, Maya Angelou reminds us “that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I believe there is another element beyond the content that we teach and the methods we employ. I can deliver the most amazing engaging class session ripe in content with the most recent research but if I fail to see where they are lost or when they disconnect then what have I accomplished for that student?

I was recently in a conference presentation when a discussant failed to offer constructive feedback and preferred to demean a presenter. While not a class, the situation was unfortunate because the opportunity for open and productive dialogue was closed. As an audience member I felt uncomfortable. I was not uncomfortable for the presenter because she was actually correct in her assertion. I was also not uncomfortable for the discussant in that his assertion was accurate but misapplied. I was uncomfortable in the situation because the energy was one of negativity, of an unnecessary assertion of power, and clearly changed the tone of the room.

As the professor, class facilitator, we perform a role that necessitates us to work toward honoring all perspectives of students, even those with fundamentally different beliefs and work toward building a classroom model that honors both the mind and spirit of the student by outwardly accepting difference, protecting against intolerance toward that difference, and moving toward constructive dialogue. What we say is important. What we do in class is important. But how we make that student feel while he or she is in our class may be the biggest take-away lesson of them all.

‘Just Tell us the Answer’ – Finding New Objectives for a Large Enrollment Introductory Course

This post is the second in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Brian Darby, Department of Biology, University of North Dakota

My first year experience was learning how to manage effectively a large enrollment introductory lecture course of around 150 students, many of which are taking their second or third course in the major. The logistics of managing such a course are challenging, but I found more than enough support through CILT, OID, and the Alice T. Clark program to help make the lecture environment a worthwhile and meaningful experience for the students. I’m certainly no expert yet, and I expect that my skills will continue to improve over the next couple of years. Even more difficult than class management was figuring out the learning objective of the course. How far up on Bloom’s taxonomy do they need to be at the end of the course? How do I balance time spent on clarifying the basic terms and concepts with time spent on active learning activities? I suspect that as I gain experience I will continue to learn how to best maintain this balance and will likely find out that the two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

But I think that the most instructive lesson that I learned over the last semester came during one of my first lectures. I was excited to find a published research paper that made the popular press and even integrated several of the concepts of genetics, evolution, and selection that were being covered in the class. Not only did it use much of the exact same terminology, equations, and notation, but it also demonstrated that what they’re learning is actively being researched in the scientific community and being applied to real-world examples! I described the main parts of the paper to the class and asked a few basic questions that tested their comprehension and recognition of course concepts. They did well. I ended with one final question that was a bit more challenging and required a level of critical thinking that I’m sure some, but not all, in the class were capable of, so I thought I’d give it a try anyhow. I gave them a moment to think about it, and even brainstorm with a neighbor or two. Ultimately, though, the class was silent, until one student in the front said “Just tell us the answer”

“No!” my inner monologue wanted to shout. “Just tell us the answer” should not be an acceptable sentiment among science majors, or any college student, but I fear it is, and I think I have a better understanding of one the course learning objectives. As much as other faculty depend on me to teach the basic concepts, terminology, and technical skills required for the upper-level courses they will take in the department (in my case, Biology), I’ve learned that it is also partly my responsibility to convey the understanding that they are now responsible for their own knowledge acquisition and that answers may not always simply be handed down to them. My students who will become a forensic technician, or a game warden, or an emergency room doctor won’t necessarily be able to ask their employer “just tell me the answer”. I assume this is true for your respective fields as well. My goal for the upcoming years is to use the introductory courses that I teach as an opportunity to instill the sense of excitement and ambition that would make a student eager to pursue their own answers.

Midsemester Reflection of a First Year History Teacher

Robert Caulkins, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Bob is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History and has graciously agreed to share some of his experiences as a first semester instructor with our Teaching Thursday audience.

Bill Caraher recently asked me if I would contribute a piece to the Teaching Thursdays blog and, although I read this informative blog with some regularity I have always been hesitant to add my proverbial two cents to this column—I had not actually taught a college level course of my own.  As Bill has since pointed out, I can no longer say that, and in fact I’m really excited about some of the developments that I have recently observed among my US History to 1877 students.  This excitement comes from actually watching one component of my teaching strategy work with my students.

When I initially constructed the syllabus, selected the textbook, and chose some ancillary readings for the course, I had a very broad concept for the class in mind and that was to examine the historical development of the “American Character.”  Early in this conceptual stage I decided that by presenting early American and colonial history in a comparative manner that was more closely tied to anywhere else other than the American portion of the North American continent and not focusing just on what white Europeans did once they arrived on the shores of the future thirteen colonies, I believed that my students would be able to make larger historical connections to what many people believe are uniquely American values and characteristics.  My greatest hope was that I would be able to pique the curiosity of the students concerning where these “American” traits originated from.  Of course implementing this plan was another matter. 

Throughout the teaching process I have faced the same problems and difficulties that most other teachers have had to deal with and one of these issues is getting adequate feedback from the students on the effectiveness of my teaching.  While I’m as human as the next teacher and would be overjoyed to hear what a “great teacher” I am, I’m also enough of a realist to know that there are students in the class that are there for any number of reasons, some of which do not have anything to do with satisfying an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of American history.  More pragmatic issues such as filling electives or completing general studies requirements are motives that are just as important to some students as the motives of those who see history as a component of their liberal arts education.  In order to find some sort of balance or center to aim at as a teacher, I started the semester by giving my class of fifty a survey with some questions that I hoped they would answer honestly, providing me with enough information to allow me to tailor certain aspects of the course to achieve my teaching objectives.

The survey allowed the student to remain anonymous as no names were required or wanted—in fact I told the students that if they did not want to fill it out they did not have too.  I did not receive a single returned blank survey sheet.  The survey addressed six questions, and while the class roster provided an answer to the first question, which was, “what year or grade are you in?” is available in People Soft, having the student identify themselves as freshmen or sophomores while providing a brief writing sample had some value in determining who I was teaching and what my expectations of them would be.  While there is no way to draw grand conclusions from this particular question their handwritten responses allowed me to connect the rest of the survey to the grade level of the student.  There were no surprises in the answers, out of fifty students, forty-four of them were either first or second year students, and here they were almost evenly divided. 

For the sake of brevity I won’t go over all the questions, but the two questions that have since provided the most utility for my teaching were, “What questions would you like answered while you are here?” and rather surprisingly, “Where are you from, and what is your ethnic background or heritage?”  The big question for me, was to discern what if anything the students enjoyed learning about and how to best connect the events of the past to them personally in the present and their own personal history or background seemed like a good place to start.  The responses to the question of what they wanted answers too did not produce what I thought were any profound revelations.  One student expressed curiosity over the role of religion in the formulation of laws while several others wanted more information on wars the United States had been involved in.  Another student wanted to know why an entire semester was devoted to a survey course that only covered half of the country’s history.  For the most part I was left with the impression that those whom I was dealing with possessed a kind of tabula rasa when it came to their own country’s history.  The responses concerning their ethnic and cultural background however, were brimming with information.  According to their answers the entire class was native born and all students but one claimed some ethnic or cultural background, the lone dissenter simply identified himself as an “American.”  This ethnic background information became useful in that I could use it to lead class discussions on a nation formed by diverse groups of immigrants by linking the colonization of North America to the students own immigrant roots.  The trick was going to be putting these two components together and provide the students with enough information to stimulate their curiosities to the point where they would develop questions concerning the country’s past. 

Last week, after giving the class their second term examination results, I directed the students to write a short, in-class essay on what they have learned to date about American history.  Several of the students stated that they had augmented their existing levels of knowledge but pointed out that they had benefitted from some particular area of history that extended beyond the usual limits of a survey course in American history.  But the majority of the students almost without fail noted the expanded or more cosmopolitan manner of how they now viewed America’s early history.  Many students noted particular historical characters that they had never heard of before, while other encouraging feedback concerned student’s comprehension of complex concepts such as the application of “enlightenment era” philosophies during the formation of the country.  But it was individual observation and comments that gave me the most satisfaction.  One student expressed relief to know that divisions and rancor between political parties was not new or a twentieth century development and was very surprised to know that it has existed since the formation of the nation.  Other students expressed surprise over more mundane aspects of what had been taught in the previous nine weeks of the semester—such as reconsidering the cultural mythology surrounding Christopher Columbus.  Other students professed a new understanding of the history of slavery in America, some complete with expressions of surprise at the levels of suffering endured by slaves held in captivity.  Overall I am very pleasantly surprised by what I had received as feedback being two-thirds through the semester.  I truly appreciate this opportunity to share my experience with others and I hope that some of this may be beneficial to the other rookies coming along in the future.  I am reminded though that the semester is still not over and there are a few other items though where the jury is still out on how my class is dealing with requirements for the course such as their writing assignment on selected portions of Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy In America.  This might make an interesting follow up post.

First Year Reflection: What was that? That was awesome!

This post is the fourth in our second annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Desiree Tande, Nutrition and Dietetics, College of Nursing, University of North Dakota

“What was that?”

“That was awesome!”

“Ugh!”

“Yee-haw!”

These are just a couple of thoughts that have passed through my mind during my first year here at UND. Yes, a real rollercoaster ride – fortunately, mostly ups rather than downs. Getting my feet on the ground as a new faculty member has been an adventure. Sometimes the adventures have taken me to places that I will aim to travel to again and again and sometimes to places that I would rather not see again. I guess this is part of my learning process as a teacher, developing my mind concurrently with the minds of my students. I do believe that I need to become a better teacher and to do so, requires some risk taking in the classroom. I have spent some significant time over the past year thinking outside my “previous experience and exposure box,” assessing risk, and taking the calculated leap.

I have determined that I don’t necessarily want to teach in the same manner that I was taught, generally speaking. I have discovered over the past few years that my own experience with studying and learning in college was less than ideal. This unfortunate situation was partially due to me and partially due to the instruction. I have been fortunate to study under a few wonderful teachers that have taught me excellent strategies that I do employ in the classroom. The other teachers, well, their style just “won’t do” in today’s world of higher education. Today, students seem to expect more than I did; they should. I used to resent this student philosophy as a graduate teaching assistant. Now, I am attempting to embrace it as an assistant professor.

Over the past 10 months, I have focused heavily on my teaching, compared with my other faculty responsibilities of research and service. The emphasis on teaching has been driven at times by my own interest and other times, merely by survival. Because I spend a great deal of time working on instruction, I wanted to establish how to become a great teacher as early in my career here at UND as possible. Thus, to improve my teaching skills, I attended a regional conference, participated in the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program, and attended On Teaching lunch seminars this past academic year. These have been valuable learning opportunities that have allowed me to expand my teaching tool kit. The students have appreciated my expanded tool kit, which has resulted in increased diversity of learning opportunities in my classes. Although lecture is still a core teaching strategy that I employ, I’ve incorporated many other strategies this year such as case studies, team-based problem solving, service learning, concept maps, and experiential learning. I’ve tried not to abuse or overuse any specific strategy or tool but rather work toward a balance that seems to most effectively facilitate student learning. I have found that this balance and which tools are employed vary by course and student needs. In the end, I attempt to make lecture engaging and offer discussion opportunities to bring the content of the course to life for students and help them apply it to their world. When my lesson plan is not working, I change it. When it is working, I try to build on this foundation.

My job is to facilitate learning and development for students but not to do it for them. What students choose to invest in my course is up to them. I do believe that the students must take ownership of their own learning. Simultaneously, I need to engage them in the content of the course and make it meaningful for them. I enjoy working with students to establish the precise level of challenge and support needed for them to thrive in my courses. Implementing student feedback helps me move toward this goal. I have utilized formative and summative, qualitative and quantitative assessment to gauge teaching effectiveness. I attempt to be a responsive teacher. The relationships that I develop with students throughout the course are imperative to this process of evaluation and refining teaching strategies that work to help them reach their learning goals. This is the best part of my job!

My first year in academia has been both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding, leaving me gasping for air at times and refraining from doing cartwheels down the hall with excitement at other times. Flexibility has been important for my success and sanity during this past year. My students have been incredibly responsive to my needs, just as I have attempted to be responsive to theirs. The willingness for flexibility on both parts was required during my first year of discovery into the world of teaching here at UND. My first year began with eager anticipation and ends with optimism. I am honored to have to the opportunity to work with UND students and am already looking forward to how I can serve them better when classes commence in the fall.

First Year Reflections: Dr. Smith Comes to Grand Forks

This post is the third in our second annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

John-Paul Legerski, Department of Psychology, University of North Dakota

In my spare time I like to watch and study film. Capraesque is a term used in literature and film to describe a classic fish-out-water story, a recurring theme found in many of Frank Capra’s films. Capra, the Italian-American auteur, most famously used this motif in two depression area films, Mr. Deeds Comes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Comes to Washington (1939). Each of these films, starring Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart respectively, is filled with fast-paced dialogue and screwball goofery and is near identical in their central themes. They each present a naive protagonist who is forced to navigate the foreign, and sometimes dangerous, big city aided only by their small town values, which are incompatible with the ways of big city life.

I had several of my own fish-out-of-water experiences this year as a first year assistant professor in the Psychology Department at UND. In one class with over 180 students I had lofty goals of sculpting young minds through rich and intense dialog using the Socratic Method. Of course, my colleagues’ warned me of the quiet Northern Plains stoic culture. But I was convinced that these accounts must be an exaggeration. That was until early Spring semester when I discovered that if you get the auditorium in Abbott Hall quiet enough you can actually hear a pair of crickets auditing the course. Instead of the masterful teacher played by Roger Williams in his memorable role in Dead Poet’s Society, I found myself channeling Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?…”

I also naively believed that as one of the youngest faculty members in the Psychology department that I would have an easier time seeming relevant and hip to my undergraduate students. I listen to indie rock music, shop at Urban Outfitters, and when feeling casual I have been known to teach in my Chuck Taylor All-Star high tops. But I quickly discovered that my repertoire of pop culture references was a little dated for the Millennial Generation running around campus (a point you may have ascertained from the films referenced above). This became apparent in my Abnormal Psychology class where less than half of the students were familiar with the film Rain Man, which I referenced when discussing autism. Even fewer students (approx. 3%) knew of Marc Summers, the host from Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, who has written extensively about his own life experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder. These and other challenges (and I am not even talking about the ND weather) made me feel a bit like a fish-out-of-water at times during my first year.

Some classic film buffs reading this post may cry, “Foul”, having realized there are some holes in my Capra films analogy. Perhaps most apparent is the fact that Capra’s films take small town folks to the big city. Most of us would probably not consider Grand Forks a big city. It may be the only campus where students make a fashion statement by wearing camouflage. Having been raised in the San Francisco Bay area my experience coming to North Dakota has probably been closer to City Slickers, a reversal of Capra’s fish-out-of-water motif. My Capra films analogy falls apart in another important way. Capra’s characters are inflexible in their perspectives as they ultimately save the day by bringing small town values and good ol’ common sense to the city folks. I may bring a valued perspective to my department, in terms of my training and research, but I have found that to be successful as a teacher it is important to be flexible.

Being flexible means more that updating my pop culture references (although I have learned to incorporate Snooki and Lady Gaga in my lectures). It also means being willing to adapt to the needs of my students. I have already worked to change my lecturing style to help students feel more comfortable in sharing their experiences and opinions in class. I have also made better attempts at identifying questions that are relevant to our students, both in terms of their age and background. I have also made a concerted effort to get out from behind the PowerPoint slides. Earlier this semester I was amazed when a colleague of mine revealed that she never uses PowerPoint slides in her lectures. The medium appeared to me to be such a standard fixture in college and university classrooms. A few weeks later, my entire slide presentation was erased minutes before lecture began. Lecturing with only my handwritten notes, I had one of the best experiences this year. I realized that while PowerPoint can be a helpful tool, it can also impede class discussion.

I have also relied on my mentors, both in Psychology department and through the Alice T. Clark program, to identify teaching strategies that they have used to effectively teach students at UND. The Alice T. Clark program has been an invaluable resource, providing important and useful information on teaching, research, and service. I would encourage all new faculty to attend. These resources have helped me to understand that although my classes may not be like Dead Poet’s Society, I can still shape young, eager minds in a large auditorium in North Dakota.