Search Results for: Uncomfortable

Confirmation for “Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed”?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I’ve been telling students that I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D’Mello and Art Graesser found “that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning.”

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.

In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”

Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.

On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.

Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”

All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

“Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”

I gave my digital history class a “pep talk” at the end of last week to address the concerns some of them had about feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about exactly what I wanted them to do this semester.

I explained that I wanted them to be uncertain, that I wanted them to be shaken out of their normal writing and researching experience, that it was in those conditions that they were most likely to learn. However, I explained that I wanted them to not be so overwhelmed that they felt like they couldn’t do anything. I told them I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed.” It sounded funny after I said it (no faculty quote t-shirts, please) but it’s a good summary of the environment I hope to create in this class. [Though comfortable is the ultimate goal.]

It came up again today in class as the students looked blankly when they were asked if they had any questions. So I asked, “uncomfortable or paralyzed?” They laughed and we moved forward.

I’m still concerned that some people are closer to paralyzed than uncomfortable, but I think they’re willing to ask questions when they’re stuck.

Why I Teach

Let’s get something clear from the start: I love teaching. I love teaching history. I love teaching students at a school that prioritizes teaching. I love walking in to a classroom with historical documents and scholarly readings and images and strategies for how I’m going to talk with students about the past (and often the present and the future).  I love that I walk out from that same classroom an hour or so later simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, having learned as much as the students have in our give and take of learning about the past.  I love seeing what students can do if you push them out of their comfort zone while also providing them with support and opportunities to approach, both creatively and rigorously, the study of history.  I love my job.

My approach to teaching is grounded in the importance of historical inquiry, the multidisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, and five key related beliefs.  First, I believe that students are at the center of teaching.  I work to involve students in classes as participants, leaders, and fellow learners.  In exchange, I expect students to take responsibility for their education in and out of my classes.

Second, I believe that technology can play a key role in enhancing traditional pedagogical practices.  I integrate WordPress, Omeka, Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and web-based discussions, online research, multimedia content, digital history projects, electronic editing of papers, and image and video creation into my classes.  All of these aspects of technology are used to vary and improve communication, offer alternative forms of discussion or presentation, or broaden the academic experience in and out of the classroom, while holding on to scholarly and intellectual rigor.

Third, I believe in the importance of teaching students to be critical consumers of knowledge.  I have a responsibility to teach students to approach all primary and secondary content with a skeptical eye, not just historical sources or scholarly books and articles, though grappling with these remain essential to the discipline.  For example, in my courses on US History in Film, American Technology and Culture, Civil War and Memory, History of the Information Age, and Digital History, I work with students to analyze critically what have become the key popular sources of information about the past, namely movies and the Internet.  In all my classes I work with students to explore what it means to be skeptical about all sources of knowledge.

Fourth, I believe in the need to teach students to be rigorous yet creative and adaptable producers of knowledge.  This skill links closely with the previous notion.  Understanding how knowledge is produced makes one a better consumer, but being skeptical about one’s sources also makes one a better writer and speaker.  In my classes students are encouraged to express themselves in various ways: formal and informal, written and oral, online and in person. I teach a number of different skill sets related to exchanging and expressing information in my classes, from basic writing to oral presentations to working with groups to digital project design to the creation of infographics, images & documentaries, yet all stem from one’s ability to convey content, concepts and ideas in the best possible way.

Fifth, I believe in students being “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” in their learning. A student walked into my office several years ago and said to me, “Dr. McClurken, I’m really struggling with all this online stuff,” referring to the projects I had assigned to the students in my American Technology and Culture course. She explained that digital projects were unfamiliar to her and that she was uncomfortable with her ability to do the assignment. She was surprised when my response to her discomfort was, “Good.” I went on to explain that I wanted her and her classmates to push the boundaries of what they understood about the conceptualization and presentation of historical information beyond papers and tests. Though she struggled a bit learning the tools we were using that semester, she later sent an email thanking me for introducing her to new methods of approaching history with the subject heading, “From Antipathy to Appreciation.” Note the last part of my initial phrase—“not paralyzed”—because it’s equally important.  I want students to move out of their comfort zones because that is where deep learning occurs, but I don’t want them to be so uncomfortable they can’t get anything done.  To keep them from paralysis we discuss potential resources to which they can turn (including their fellow students), we talk extensively about what constitutes successful work (even to the point in some classes of collectively constructing the rubrics with which I assess their papers and projects), and I tell them that they can always come to me if truly stumped.  The results of a semester’s worth of student discomfort is worth it to me, and more importantly to them, as I see their pride in the work that they’ve created and shared not only with me or with their class, but with the wider world.

This post is part of a Connected Courses assignment, and is a revised version of a piece I’ve written in various forms for various submissions.

Pushing Boundaries

I’ll make this public here, partly to keep myself honest, partly to explain why there may be fewer* posts here.

I often say that one of my goals in teaching is to push students beyond their comfort zones, that discomfort is where real learning occurs, and that I want students to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.  One of the parallels to that, however, that I’ve also made clear in the teaching presentations I’ve made to faculty is that the concept applies to us as well.    We need to get outside of what we are comfortable with and to learn new skills while remembering what it is like to be a student.

In that vein, and because I’ve really always wanted to join in the fun that many of my students and my good friends at UMW’s DTLT are having, I’m going to participate in DS106 this summer as a student.  The course (phenomenon?) that began at UMW a few years ago had its origins as a face-to-face course in Digital Storytelling in Computer Science.   DS106 has become much more than that, and runs at various points throughout the year with both students taking a formal class with grades and credits and a host of open, online only participants (like me).

I’ve created a separate site for my various projects to come out of the 10 week course at http://ds106.mcclurken.org/.

*I’m aware that some of you are laughing right now at the idea of “fewer” posts here, given the sporadic nature of my blogging.

2012 UMW Convocation Keynote

 

The following is a speech that I was invited to give to graduating seniors at the pre-graduation awards ceremony known as Convocation.  If you’re not at UMW, some of the inside jokes will not make as much sense so I’ve included some links or annotations).  
 
—————————–
 
May 11, 2012

Thank you for that introduction, Austin, and thanks to the Senior Class Officers for this opportunity to talk to the graduating class of 2012, and our honored guests, family and friends.

 

As Austin mentioned, four years ago I was the first faculty member to talk to all you graduating seniors as a class of UMW students [as part of the opening Honor Code ceremony]; I’m honored to be the last faculty member to do so before you walk tomorrow.

Four years ago I told you all about my own Honor Convocation. Four years ago we were preparing for a presidential election, much as we are today.  Four years ago I talked about having iPhone envy; now it’s iPad envy. 

In the last four years, Facebook gained hundreds of millions of users, tens of billions of dollars, its own tell-all movie, and, very recently, a few questionable UMW Grad Ball pictures. In the last four years, Twitter became so mainstream that President Hurley has an account (though I wish he’d stop competing with Lady Gaga for followers—it’s getting embarrassing).  In the last four years, we saw the beginning and the end of Kim Kardashian’s marriage, but sadly not the end of her 15 minutes of fame. 

On a more serious note, as a class you’ve witnessed a nation involved in multiple wars/conflicts; you’ve seen a world coping with man-made disasters of massive oil spills and natural disasters of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic ash; you’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and of the Occupy Movement; and the so-called Great Recession has, more or less, spanned your time here.

Of course, you all have been busy these four years as well.  A few weeks ago, I asked you for your favorite UMW memories.  Hundreds of you responded and for that I thank you.  I was moved by your passion for this school and for your time here.

When I asked what three things you would most remember about your time at UMW, several items stood out.  Your professors, your campus, your friends, your community, your Honor.
http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/5251798/2012-Convo–Honor
 
 
Several of you asked me to convey to your families “the essence of UMW and why [you] love it here: the honor code, the beauty of campus, the [caring] professors, the engaged classmates, knowing so many people as [you] walk down campus walk.” 

Whether it was playing on Ball Circle, lounging in the big white chairs, fountain swimming, eating at Seaco or McDonalds or Hyperion, watching or joining UMW sports, or studying in the library, you told me of “Good friends, good times, and good memories.” 
A number of you remarked on the visit by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama to campus in the fall of 2008. 
 
Others remembered how distraught you were to have classes cancelled during Snowpocalypse 2010’s 50+ inches of ice and snow. 
 
 
 
[The student in the laundry basket seems particularly distraught, no?]
 
Several of you commented on the constant state of campus construction; others talked about the change in University presidents.  One of you combined the two, remembering that some presidents came, started construction (including some really nice book cases) and then went.  [Actually quite a few of you remarked on how wonderful and approachable President and Mrs. Hurley are.]

Over and over, you told me about the power of the time spent in your department, your academic community, of your close relationships with faculty and fellow majors, of the process of “Mentors…becoming friends”.  Many of you wrote of being challenged by rigorous professors, about the discomfort and benefits of trying out new things, about how much you learned when operating out of your comfort zone, even if you weren’t able to do it easily.
 
Now, students who have taken my classes know that I have a phrase to describe that sweet spot in which real learning occurs: uncomfortable, but not paralyzed.   The comments you all made reflect that your UMW experiences were full of these moments of uncomfortable learning, real learning.  Scary at times, yes, but if you were ever paralyzed you knew you could turn to faculty and friends and family to help you through it. 

Even more importantly, you’ve learned to handle that discomfort of new things on your own.  As one of you noted: “I think part of becoming sure of yourself is not always being given advice but finding your own way.”  So, like your fellow student who began four years ago as a pre-dental, bio major who became an art major and will soon be an art teacher, you all have found your own way, tried new things, and learned about yourself and the world around you.

Tomorrow you will walk in front of your families, your friends, and your faculty. I, as many people have done and will do over the next few weeks, asked about your plans after college. 
 
http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/5251832/2012Convo–Post-grad
You told me of plans for graduate schools or jobs or internships or taking time off.   

But one of you challenged the simplicity of the question itself, saying, “instead try and imagine a life that will forever change, evolve, adapt, revolt and challenge the complex conventions of life that are so commonly reduced to a series of words.”  I like that reminder that graduation is just the beginning, not the end, of figuring out who you are, what you believe in, what you do.

Now, when I asked what else you wanted to hear about in this speech, many of you asked me to inspire you, to tell you it was going to be okay, to tell you that life after college would be good.  
 
So…in order to do all of those things, I’m going to tell you about moving back in with my parents.
 
Four years ago I told you about how amazing it was to walk across the stage in Ball Circle in 1994.
UMW Graduation — http://archive.umw.edu:8080/vital/access/HandleResolver/10154/1459 

I didn’t mention, that after walking across the stage and shaking the president’s hand, as you’ll do tomorrow, I walked back to Alvey Hall, packed up my things and moved back home.  I had been conflicted my senior year about what I was going to do after college. For a while I was sure that I would become a minister.  That didn’t work out, though it was not because, as one student recently suggested, of any youthful indiscretions on my part.   [Honestly the student in question seemed disappointed that I wasn’t that cool.]

Instead I applied to graduate school in history.  Now, in retrospect, I realize that I didn’t know how to present myself or my time at Mary Washington; I didn’t tap into the resources on campus.  I didn’t make the case, as I should have, as you should, that the liberal arts & sciences at Mary Washington had helped to create me as an adaptable, engaged, well-rounded citizen, a critical thinker eager and able to continue learning throughout my life.   Perhaps not surprisingly, I was only accepted at one of the six schools to which I applied.  Without any funding, it wasn’t something that I could make work.

So, moving back in with my parents (who are wonderful, wonderful people, as your parents undoubtedly are), I went back to working at a movie theatre making minimum wage, a movie theatre I had worked at in high school.  I had some moments where I wondered what I had done with my four years of amazing time at MW.

I interviewed for a few jobs, though none of them worked out.  I did turn down a chance to manage a movie theatre for the princely sum of ~$300/week and all the popcorn I could eat.  Instead, I offered to volunteer on one of the first digital history projects and ultimately was hired as a paid employee. 

With this experience under my belt, and with the help of my professors here I applied again to graduate school, this time to 11 schools, getting into six, including a fully funded scholarship to Johns Hopkins University’s History PhD program.  Within four years I was back teaching here at this place we all love.
 
[Oh, and though I didn’t know it when I graduated 18 years ago, I’d already met the fellow Mary Washington student who I would somehow figure out how to propose to while in graduate school, the woman I’ve now been married to for 15 years.]
 
I tell you all of this, not because I think you should follow my path (my wife is already married), but because I want you to know that it’s okay not to know yet what your path is. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, but don’t be paralyzed.

Some of you have jobs.  Congratulations.  Some of you are already set for graduate school in the fall.  Congratulations.  Some of you are planning to work, then go to graduate school later.  Congratulations.  But even if you don’t have a job yet, and you’re not alone if you don’t, congratulations.   Why? Because historically, liberal arts and sciences graduates may take longer to get their first job, but are more likely to hang on to jobs and to adapt as fields change.

Know as well, that for some people, not going to graduate school, not getting a job immediately is the right choice. You have fellow graduates who are planning to backpack in Latin America, or to work for volunteer organizations, people who are excited by the chance to do something different.  Try being uncomfortable, just don’t let yourself be paralyzed.

Four years ago, I told many of you that you were entering an academic community of scholars, engaging in a partnership in learning with me and with my colleagues.  You have done so.  You have thrived, you have grown, you have joined us in an academic enterprise of consequence. 
 
Alan Levine–http://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/7174181426/
 
As you walk across that stage in Ball Circle, know that we, your professors, are proud of you and all that you have achieved.  Know that we are grateful for the time we have spent with you and hope that you have felt challenged, inspired, and ultimately rewarded by your time with us.  Know that we look forward to hearing of your opportunities, successes, and accomplishments in the years to come.  No matter where you go, or what you do, you will always be alums of Mary Washington. That community lasts a lifetime.  

So, go, be uncomfortable in new jobs, new internships, new business ventures, new schools, traveling to new places, or even with just a new attitude in your old room at home.  Be okay with being uncomfortable, because that’s where the real learning, the real change, the real fun is.  And come back and tell me in 18 years how it all turns out.
Thank you.
 
———————-
Acknowledgments
 
Thanks to Tim O’Donnell and Carter Hudgins for their help/inspiration on earlier versions of this.  Thanks as well to the hundreds of 2012 UMW graduates who responded to my request for feedback, information, and memories of their time at Mary Washington.  I included as many of their words and ideas as possible here.
 
Image Credits
 

 

  • Word clouds from Wordle.net, based on response from hundreds of 2012 UMW Graduating Seniors.
  • Obama Visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/panandrao/
  • Snowpocalypse Collage: Heather Thompson, Jenn Arndt; http://umwbullet.com/files/2010/02/igloo-300×201.jpg; http://fourword.umwblogs.org/files/2011/01/DSC_1325.jpg
  • 1993 graduation photo: http://archive.umw.edu:8080/vital/access/HandleResolver/10154/1459
  • 2012 Ball Circle photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/7174181426/

 

 

Past and Upcoming Presentations

I’ve been fortunate enough to do a number of presentations this academic year, on a variety of topics.

  • I had a great time presenting on teaching with WordPress blogs at WordCampEd DC last November (along with Jeremy Boggs, Automattic’s Jane Wells, and CNDLES‘s Rob Pongsajapan). The morning finished with Jim Groom’s call to arms (blogging/EDUPUNK–actually those don’t do it justice–it was an inspired call to innovation). I just needed to warm up the crowd, and I think I did my job well. [Seriously, I got lots of good questions about methods used, strategies to get students to actually blog, and problems with “controlling” what students say in these blogs. It was a warm, welcoming crowd and I was humbled to be in conversations with the participants and my fellow presenters. Thanks especially to CHNM’s Dave Lester for setting the whole event up.]
  • Then in January, Jeremy Boggs and I presented as part of a large panel of scholar teachers at the American Historical Association national meeting in New York. Our topic was Teaching History in the Digital Age. [My links for the presentation are here and the session was nicely reviewed by history-ing.] Although the conference organizers had placed us in a tiny room (~30 seats), we filled the room and had people sitting on sideboards, the floor, and standing in the hallway. Hmmm, perhaps historians do want to know more about this digital thing. In any case, my presenters were fun, their presentations fascinating, the audience was engaged, and we had a terrific Q&A afterwards. About all you could hope for in an AHA presentation….


I’m also hoping to present on 1) digital history and 2) strategic planning for digital resources and technologies at the AAHC in April and THATCamp II in June, though I’m still waiting to hear about the proposals for those conferences.

Also in April I’ll be presenting at HASTAC III at the University of Illinois on “‘Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed’: Challenging Traditional Classroom Boundaries with Undergraduates and Digital History.” Having never done a lightening talk (and being famous for running over) I’d appreciate any strategies readers of this blog have for doing lightening talks (~5-7 minutes).

And in late May, I’ll be presenting to Mary Washington alums on Digital History projects as part of Alumni College associated with UMW’s Reunion events.

It’s a busy fall and spring, but I’ve been having a great time doing these presentations.

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.