Category Archives: Professional Growth

Teaching and My Journey with Technology


(Speaking with pre-service teachers in the Ukraine 2011.)


My journey teaching with technology is constantly evolving… as it should be.  In fact, I remain in a fairly steep learning curve, although I am intentionally taking baby steps as I explore new tools to meaningfully enhance teaching and learning.  My approach to any innovative teaching and learning practice is to understand the type of thinking it targets or can facilitate when done well and what it looks like when done poorly. In other words, I place the thinking goals first, then choose the appropriate methods and tools to help.

What follows is a brief description of the various tools I have embedded, to varying degrees, in my instruction. I will make relevant connections to my uses in faculty development, but most of my experimentation is in the classroom and is fortunately aided by the skilled hands of my colleagues. I claim no expertise with any tool, but I am skilled at making the thinking goals visible and figuring out how to bring them to fruition.


  • Blogging – I guess if you are reading this you are aware of this blog. It is the place where I reflect on and explore issues related to teaching, learning and higher education. Frankly, it has been one of the most rewarding exercises in my professional life. One of my colleagues, Britt Watwood, relentlessly argued that I embrace blogging, and, being a person who believes in making decisions on sound reasons when necessary and important to do so, I eventually had to yield. I have Dr. Watwood to thank for his introduction into the power of public reflection. I found my voice. Consequently, I have discovered ways to incorporate blogging into the classes I teach.
  • Course Sites and Mother Blogs. The first two examples below capture efforts with the undergraduate courses I teach. The third example is an aggregated blog for the Learning Spaces program I designed, manage, and facilitate. All are evolving, but all represent an attempt to help students connect with one another and outside participants.

Google Forms & Docs

  • Most of my electronic documentation in the undergraduate courses I teach take place in Google Docs. Our university supports Google, which makes it easy to share work with students and connect them to various apps and add-ons. The commenting features have proven very valuable for providing and tracking peer feedback. I have even experimented with Google draft back that I first learned about from James Somers blog on the topic. This tool is really powerful for its metacognitive potential and helping students actually see their thinking in action…for better or worse. Moreover, I can use this tool to show them my thinking as I write, re-write and re-write again. Finally, Google Docs is an excellent tool for co-creating course documents with students like rubrics and grade profiles.
  • Google Forms is such an easy tool for real time assessment. Whether I am checking in with students to get a better idea of how the course is meeting their needs or if I need to check their understanding of a concept, Google Forms is a simple and quick way to gather that information particularly because it automatically loads the responses into a spreadsheet. It is just a press of a button to transfer that data into a graph or chart. Pretty seamless for my purposes thus far.

Telescoping Text

  • I posted my first telescoping text in my course site for an undergraduate class entitled Inquiry & the Craft of Argument. I used this tool to communicate two elements of the course: The Big Thought Picture  and The Big Course Picture. The first addresses the type of thinking and core questions informing our intellectual work. The second clarifies the course theme. The purpose of this technology is to find the CORE of the course. My secondary purpose was to model the type of thinking that the tool targets. In doing so, students were to use this tool to present the abstracts for their final research papers. The thinking (finding the core) was difficult for them just as saying it concisely, but the tool is easy to use; it just takes forethought.


  • I LOVE FLIPGRID!!! I have to thank my colleague Michael Reis for the introduction and orientation to this tool. Why do I love it so much? It has a low threshold for participation. Flipgrid has proven to be an excellent tool for capturing faculty reflections. Of course, it has its limits. If my purpose was to use it to capture deep reflections and extensive elaborations, then I would be greatly disappointed. However, that is not my purpose. I use this tool as a conversation starter. Specifically, I use it to introduce a new idea, have participants engage with that idea modeling a specific pedagogical method (or interpret it through a specific conceptual lens), view what others have said, and use the 90 second clips as starting points for our follow-up group meetings. Awesome! 90 seconds is not a lot to ask and it does not require a unique log-in. It can also be used with computers and mobile devices that have voice and camera capabilities. Best of all, faculty love it too!


  • It’s odd that I learned of this tool and it was announced shortly after that my institution will enable Voicethread in our LMS. My experience with this program is emerging, but so far I have found it very useful for digital interactions with students and faculty. I like the ability to annotate a document with text, illustration, and voice narration. It really helps viewers hear and see the thinking. I also like the commenting features, which allow for following discussion threads. Finally, it is a strength of this program that a user can comment in multiple formats: voice, video, text.  As far as our faculty are concerned, one downside is that it requires a unique log in, so it adds yet another thing we have to keep track of. Hopefully, this last piece is addressed once it is embedded within our LMS.

Timeline JS

  • Timeline JS is a free web-ware that my colleague Tom Woodward introduced me to. It is designed for making history timelines. However, once I saw it I immediately thought of its potential for students crafting timelines of their intellectual journeys throughout the term.  The assumptions driving general education initiatives rest on exposure to, practice with and transfer of cross-disciplinary intellectual skills and dispositions. I believe in the potential power of general education, but I pause at the suggestion that all students will be able to develop such skills and dispositions through mere exposure. I want to make the process more explicit and accountable as far as my class goes. My goal was for students to account for the development of the skills, dispositions and insights they have worked on throughout the term. This involves addressing obstacles they faced and how they managed them. Timeline JS allows for one to embed a document (pdf), picture, website or a video that I required students to cite as evidence to support claims of intellectual growth. This project is directly linked to my critique of traditional conceptions of what constitutes a student portfolio. The potential for students to see and account for their development over the course of a semester is tremendous; this is particularly relevant to shifting the focus of learning away from rote content knowledge toward growth mindsets. If we are to help students develop emerging understandings and skills of what it means to think within a discipline (like biologists, like literary critics, like historians, etc.), then much can be said of emphasizing deep metacogitive reflection that is both visible and framed as an argument.

Glogster and Smore are two additional online resources that I used to help students capture the stories of their intellectual development over the course of the term. I focused on my undergraduate general education course for reasons stated above in my description of Timeline JS. I gave students options because, after all, it’s their stories. I like the platforms because they are fairly easy to learn: there are multiple templates students can use. The thinking goals here focus on metacognitive reflection. Here are a few examples: Student Smore Examples Randomly Selected: 1, 2, 3

Piazza & Kaizena are two discussion and feedback tools that have a lot of potential to encourage peer feedback and develop communities of practice. I am new to these tools, but both are being used in a graduate course I am currently teaching.


  • I really like Diigo. It is a web based bookmarking site that allows annotation and group sharing. It also excellent search functions based on tags and categories that are either user defined and/or Diigo suggested. It has been very useful for curating and sharing resources with colleagues and students.


  • Where would I be without YouTube? Anticipatory Set Activities: When in doubt, use YouTube. An anticipatory set activity is an introductory learning experience that prepares students, intellectually and emotionally, for the content lesson. It is indirectly related, but speaks to a key concept or process with which students will engage during the lecture. A good video often provides that intuitive link that can help students see course content in just the right way. I make a study of good and short videos, and I thank all those that spend their time to make them public.


  • My university has recently invested in Kaltura, which, I’m told, feeds nicely into our LMS.  Kaltura is a lecture capture platform. I have recently learned that we can now embed a quiz in a video. I have not experimented with this yet, but plan to. This is a new tool for me, and I am particularly interested in exploring its potential for FLIPPED classroom applications.

Blackboard…of course.

My journey continues, and I work to make it a meaningful and exciting one.

Saying the known in an unknown way

Maya Angelou once said of meaningful writing:

“The writer has to take these most known things and put them together in such a way that the reader says ‘I never thought of it that way.’ That’s a real challenge.” (1 minute mark here)

Angelou’s comment sparked two questions:

  • How skilled am I at reframing my course content in ways that help students say “We’ve never thought of it that way! Wow!”?
  • How often is it my goal to do so?

I write “my goal,” but what I really mean is “our goal” as instructors; as people who have some level of responsibility for thinking about what and how other people learn.

One of my methods for helping faculty (and myself) rethink the “known” questions of education in alternative and potentially insightful ways is with this site. The organization of the site is credited to my colleague Tom Woodward. This project has proven more valuable to my own intellectual development because of the conscious effort I have made to think about the known in unknown, unfamiliar and often uncomfortable ways.

For example, this question, What do you want to get out of your next lecture?, prompted this post. The question forced me to reconsider my assumptions and perspectives about my purpose teaching (A humorous note on this idea and recent blog out of Rice Center for Teaching Excellence). One consequence is that it has opened up new ways for me to communicate, connect with and challenge the faculty I work with….and they have been very receptive. This is particularly true with established, mid and late career faculty.

I can elaborate, but at the core of this post is the question: Do I dedicate concentrated time to think about my perspective: its assumptions, its limitations, its history; and do I actively seek alternative ways to say something that may lead to insight or motivation? I want to make it a habit; a disposition so that I can help students do the same.

Critical Thinking in the Wild

Matthew Crawford wrote a book that I love: Shop Class for Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. In the spirit of this book, I wrote a post outlining a home improvement project I completed, which I conceptually applied to thinking about course design. The ideas and challenges embedded within works like Crawford’s can be quite complex, but there is a simplicity, elegance rather, to the various ways we approach intellectual work that moves beyond mere accomplishment; they speak to who we are are as human beings, as reasoning begins. Following Matthew’s lead, once again, I am going to blog on my most recent challenge: felling a 120+ foot oak.


(top 1/2 of the tree)

This magnificent tree died this last spring. Since then it has been dropping limbs on the forest floor, that, if left uncollected, would return its nutrient rich fiber to the ground from which it drew life for over a hundred years.

It hurt me to see it die. Where fresh young leaves would have covered it in a blanket of photosynthesizing magic were mere memories of what once was. By summer, the limbs were bare; far before the first cool winds of fall and the tell tale yellows and reds that draw millions of people each year to the vistas of East Coast hardwood forests. This old tree had a life far older than mine, and I was sad to see it end; yet, part of me rejoiced in the confidence that it will warm my home next winter.

I wish I could write a tribute to its magnificence that rivals that of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Good Oak” in his famous Sand County Almanac. I’ve read it numerous times, and it always brings me to tears. I’m not that writer, but I celebrate and respect the oak nonetheless. My purpose here, rather, is to follow Crawford’s lead. I wish to highlight the thinking, the critical thinking, that helped me bring this tree down to its current resting place.


I had not thought to write about this event until numerous colleagues prompted me to do so. I’ve felled numerous trees (all had died). It is a regular part of my life living in a sort of pseudo-back to the land ethic. Heating our old early 20th century farm home with a woodstove is but one example. I mention this only to emphasize that I want my children to intimately understand the physical, intellectual and emotional investment it takes to make heat and create comfort.

I wish to outline the thinking (cognitive considerations) involved in this event knowing that I currently lack the eloquence to capture its emotional significance. This is the largest tree I have dropped. I have felled trees just as tall and one that was taller, but this one was the largest considering its height and bulk.

Critical Thinking Lesson: Know your context and clarify your considerations. As one can see in the above picture, I had a few challenges. First and foremost I had to drop the tree in such a way to avoid the power/phone post that is just inside my property line. Secondly, I had to bring the tree down in one piece. This necessity was more a factor of cost and tools than of know-how. I did not have the funds to pay a tree service to bring this ancient down in pieces. Hence my first criterion: Bring the tree down with as little financial cost as possible.

Another consideration (and sub-criterion) was to do so while minimizing damage to living trees, and my neighbor’s property. The power/phone post was a major consideration, but minimizing forest damage was much more significant. The forest on my property and the neighboring property is dense. When one tree falls it often creates a domino effect that, in this case, would have damaged my neighbors property. Moreover, the tree had a natural lean that favored its fall toward that of many other healthy trees and my neighbor. An uncontrolled fall = killing healthy trees and increased costs due to property damage. To summarize my additional contextual considerations:

Considerations and Challenges:

  • 20″ chain saw, but 35″ tree diameter
  • unknown cause of tree death (its core could be rotten)
  • top heavy
  • natural opposite lean
  • one man operation
  • electrical post
  • avoid raccoon den
  • minimize impact to healthy trees

Positive factors:

  • no wind
  • experience
  • sufficient tools (debatable)
  • good drop location


  • position burl for easy access
  • more convenient access for hauling wood out of forest

Critical Thinking Lesson: Take action to properly address / manage considerations.

Strategic and mindful action helps us not only prepare our actions, it helps us self-regulate and manage our assumptions and expectations. We must organize, we must strategize, we must monitor, and we must assess. What are my expected outcomes given the course of action? Is this course desirable? What are realistic alternatives? Is this the best choice and how do I know? How will I learn from these decisions to guide future action? These are a few of the major precautions and preparations I took to maximize the probability for a successful drop.


  • Well prepared tools (sharp chainsaw, cleared fall zone)
  • Helmet for unpredictable falling limbs
  • Frequent, but short breaks for rehydration and context assessment
  • I informed others of my plans and timeline for checking in

I’ll spare the reader the detailed summary of the entire experience. Instead, I want to highlight the intellectual (critical thinking) considerations. Given the above challenges, desires and preparations, the real beauty addresses two categories. The first is that of the physical. The second is that of the technical.

Physical: This is physically tough and exhausting work. Despite what one may assume, using a chainsaw requires heavy lifting, strategic pressure, assessment of the wood and environment, and continuous mental attention. Moreover, the chainsaw is but one of my tools. I had to use an axe and a maul to remove material and drive wedges. I place mental factors within the physical category because when one lapses so does the other. In other words, they are intimately connected. In work like this the connection is very real. For example, once physical exhaustion sets in one begins to take things for granted. Dehydration can lead to lapses in judgment, unclear thinking, and neglecting procedures (Tomporowski, 2003; Ya et al, 1997). I have learned (the hard way) to pay acute attention to my physical status so that I don’t allow my mind to press my body to do things that it is too exhausted to do. My mind might say “One more swing of the axe!” but my body may not be ready resulting in a missed strike. I have come very close to breaking my leg with such lapses in judgment. It is also very easy to get caught up in a rhythm that pushes cognitive checks  or cautions aside. Consequently, one might fail to stop and check if any limbs might be in danger of falling on one’s head. Mind and body: a balance of necessity in this case.

Technical: Well, there is a lot to consider. The saw is important. Positioning the wedges on the back-cut is very important. These are typical considerations, but I want to discuss those unique to this case. In the picture below is a power/phone line tower; I had to miss it. Doing so was a bit of strategy and hope mixed into one.



I started by making an unconventional wedge cut. I left material on one side of the wedge cut. I’ve done this with smaller trees and when coupled with strategic saw work and wedge placement the tree will actually rotate during the fall. I should say “might actually rotate” because I really don’t know if it has much of an affect alone, but when combined with the other factors it has worked for me many times. The challenge, concern really, is that I had never attempted such a maneuver with this large of a tree.

Why did I want it to rotate during the fall? Two reasons, First, I had to miss the power/phone tower. Second, I wanted the burl (pictured in first photo) to be positioned on the top side of the tree instead of buried beneath it. Fortunately, (second picture from top of post) it worked.

In this case, all my goals and challenges were met.  The intellectual work that went into this project, I believe, mirrors some of the best work I have done in academia. Actions taken to manage my expectations, emotions, and ego had to be explicated and strategically confronted. Assessing the context before and during involved mapping the conditions: physical, emotional and technical. Ultimately, I put my faith in the quality of my preparation and reasoning to maximize the probability for success. In this type of work, as with complex work dealing with people, the outcome cannot be determined with 100% accuracy. So, it’s about being strategic, mindful and prepared. That is a decent recipe for maximizing success.

So, for my friends at the California Conservation Corps and those who’s work takes tangible forms, I applaud those times where critical thinking is exemplified. Now….the real work begins to get it from forest to fire.





What do I WANT to get out of my next lecture?

(Image Source)

Most of what I read frames instruction around what students get out of it….and rightfully so. After all, we teach so they can learn. Nonetheless, it made me think about what I get out of it. More specifically, it made me think about what I WANT  to get out of it.

The macro goals of my teaching life are pretty clear. I feel emotionally strengthened when I know students are challenged in important and potentially transformative ways. It fills my emotional vat when a student seeks me out to thank me for my contribution to her/his learning. I also gain new knowledge particularly as it relates to learning technologies and engaged learning pedagogy. Such knowledge has really boosted by confidence in the classroom and designing courses. I also have made friends. Some are former students, many are my colleagues. Finally, I get the opportunity to talk about my academic passions. This has huge payoffs. However, so often I find myself (and my colleagues often agree) unmotivated, lacking passion, or worse dreading class. What do I want to get out of class on a typical day?

The micro life of teaching is largely managing the mundane: logistics, grading, taking attendance, posting assignments and resources, coordinating groups, reminders, reminders and more reminders. They are necessary conditions of the profession, but they can also overwhelm and dominate my calendar as well as my thinking. So, I WANT to ask: How often do I ask questions that excite me? How often do I get a chance to demonstrate the type of thinking that I attracted me to the subject in the first place? How often do students see what I contribute to the discipline?

What do I want from a typical lecture?

  • I want to get excited.
  • I want to ask a question that Google can’t easily answer.
  • I want to ask a new question.
  • I want to engage in a meaningful discussion with other excited people.
  • I want to feel motivated.
  • I want to see the discussion continued once class ends.
  • I want to see a new research possibility.
  • I want to laugh.
  • I want to get angry at injustices.
  • I want to make something.
  • I want my thinking to be challenged.
  • I want people to care about what I have to say.
  • I want to feel invaluable.
  • I want to have a feeling of accomplishment.
  • I want to see something from a different perspective.
  • I want to discover an alternative way of doing something.
  • I want to leave with new questions.
  • I want to look forward to our next class.

Thinking about what I want to get out of class has reoriented my thinking. The above brief list shows me new possibilities and lines of action. It has also helped me rethink my attitudes and instructional habits. So, What do YOU want to get out of your next class meeting?

Faculty Development: From a Perspective of Reward

I decided to visit our archives for articles on faculty development as part of my exploration into how the field has evolved so I can gain a clearer picture of where it may be going. Why? I believe in developing programs that are firmly grounded on tried and true practices, but I also want to design programs that drive and help craft innovative practices in faculty development and higher education.



Last week I blogged my initial conceptions of a rough framework that might help me think through the complex interconnections that characterize faculty development programs and actions. In it, I argued that in practice many faculty development programs, events and interactions fall in the “support” category. This is not necessarily due to the way centers for teaching and learning see their work; rather, it is a conception that is imposed upon them by way of academic hierarchies, power structures, compartmentalization and traditions.

After a conversation with a colleague and co-author, Lee Skallerup Bessette at the University of Kentucky (@readywriting), I realized that the notion of “support” needs to be distinguished from the notion of “service.” Lee pointed me to an article she co-authored at HybridPedagogy that framed faculty development as an occupation that is uniquely positioned to help institutions seriously reconsider institutional power structures that under value (albeit rarely explicitly) teaching and learning. Such orientations often position centers for teaching and learning as mere support suppliers, rather than collaborators and drivers of innovation and transformation, and thereby limit program options. Lee’s article is titled: Towards a Critical Approach to Faculty Development.

According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to support is to:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 11.05.35 AM

Relevant definitions for service include “to help,” “to be of use,” “to benefit,” and to “contribute the welfare of others.”

Although faculty development is a service field, the perceptions of what these “services” and “support” efforts consist of do not necessarily speak to its robustness. In other words, the field of faculty development is internally rich, but often viewed as simplistic.

I cannot help but make a connection to the ways students perceive instructors, intellectual work, and the relevance of disciplinary thinking to their lives. So much of our work as instructors involves reorienting students’ thinking to be more in line with the objectives, goals and ideals of thinking within a particular discipline. After all, each discipline and each course, for that matter, represent particular lenses from which we can examine the world around us.

Reorientation, like using a map and a compass, is a necessary condition for accomplishing our learning goals as well as, I argue, for deep learning. I wrote about this concept at the following links:

At its essence, reorientation involves surfacing our assumptions and expectations and recalibrating them to match goals, objectives and dreams. I believe that the future of faculty development must take efforts to explicitly recalibrate simplistic assumptions and preconceptions of our work and move toward cultivating collaborative partnerships built on professional respect.

This sentiment is echoed by an article by Robert Boice entitled: “The Hard-Easy Rule and Faculty Development.” I found the article in the POD Network book To Improve the Academy: Resources for Student, Faculty, & Institutional Development dated 1990 volume 9.


Boice reflects on the slow progress of faculty development efforts. He focuses his discussion on what Kerr (1988) identified in organizational management as a paradox of rewards. Simply put, “easy” or fairly low risk and low value tasks are rewarded less than “hard” or seemingly high value tasks. Placed in the context of faculty, Boice argues that traditional high value tasks, like publishing, are disproportionally rewarded over low value tasks like teaching. The perception of these tasks, he argues, is that tenure and promotion value hard tasks (like publication) and that easy tasks (like teaching) are given mere lip service, but failure has statistically insignificant negative consequences despite beliefs to the contrary. Interestingly, Boice points out that the perception of hard tasks are not punished to the degree that defining them as “hard” warrants in the common rhetoric; yet, the perception remains. In other words, institutions of higher education are a lot more lenient for promotion and tenure than people believe.

To make it more complex, Boice argued that the negative consequences for poor teaching, even though it is considered an “easy” task, are much higher when taking peer perceptions, embarrassment, student interactions and departmental standing into consideration. At the risk of over-simplifying Boice’s critique, placing publication over teaching is a lame excuse for dismissing the importance of spending time on pursuing high quality teaching.

I find this economic interpretation intriguing. What I want to explore today is the extent to which the “hard-easy rule” applies to what we do as faculty developers. Can it provide a useful lens by which to analyze and evaluate the usefulness of our work?


Boice takes a stab at it arguing that faculty developers need to take a more visible role in evaluating instruction and promoting what is now termed the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  I don’t disagree with Boice, but such efforts are now fairly common. Moreover, positioning faculty developers as outside evaluators adds another layer of power that has the potential to be villainized particularly if the evaluation is not invited, but imposed by an authority figure. Many centers suffer from the “go there to get fixed” syndrome.

If I had to place a phrase on the goal of faculty development moving into the future, I would (right now) state it as: Dedicated to cultivating mutually beneficial relationships.

Why cultivating? To cultivate it so intentionally and mindfully set out to establish the conditions and connections necessary for growth to take place. We are proactive. We seek out opportunities.

Why mutually beneficial? We all want to do things that are meaningful. When instruction becomes rote, its value is compromised. In other words, its mind blowing (to use a phrase by Gardner Campbell) potential is reduced. When publication becomes rote its significance is compromised. Similarly, when faculty development consultations become rote there professional, transformative and emotional value can be questioned at the very least.  Mutually beneficial relationships open the door for collaborative innovation and advance the careers and spirit of all those involved.

Why relationships? If faculty development is not built on healthy relationships, then the necessary conditions for professional respect are compromised. When strong relationships are established, both respect the role, position and expertise of the other. I argued in an earlier post that if faculty development is to move beyond simplistic notions of support, it must cultivate the conditions needed to professionally collaborate and challenge one another. Otherwise, how often do we have the opportunity to help faculty (and others) identify and critically examine the assumptions upon which their professional identity and work are established? Stated differently, faculty development must really press the boundaries of what “development” is in the practical realities of higher education if it is to thrive as a driver of innovation and discovery.

Conclusions: “Consideration of the hard-easy rule, unpleasant as its reality may be, suggests that we need to rethink the reasons why teaching remains unrewarded and why our well-intentioned exhortations go unheeded.” (Boice, 1990, p. 10). The future of faculty development is one where centers and faculty seek out opportunities for development and innovation through the cultivation of mutually beneficial relationships. Like excellent teaching, faculty development is a craft, and I want to be a master craftsman. 

#blimage challenge – Spelunking Education


[This is the blimage  (blog image) challenge: Use an image above sent to you and “incorporate it into your blog, and write a post about learning based on it…See what you can make of it! (Then pass an image of your choice on to someone else so they can do their own #blimage challenge).” Read about the original idea here.]

My focus throughout this blog is firmly fixed on issues of education and faculty development. With that said, this photograph calls up Plato’s cave analogy. However, instead of going out, I want to go in….deeper. Let’s briefly examine the role of exploration and adventure within the typical day of class.

I really like taking adventures. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to go caving (spelunking) in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. I got the idea from a National Geographic magazine. My friend and I repelled into pits, crawled through small tunnels, squeezed our bodies through plates of limestone all for the purpose of exploration: How deep could we go? What, if anything, lived down here? What does it feel like to be in complete, all consuming darkness? How would we manage our fears (e.g. claustrophobia)? What new structures and natural oddities might we discover? How do you prepare for unknowns like mud, water, cliffs, hydration, nutrition, broken limbs, etc.?  In the process, we saw things that most people will never get to see. The best part of it is that these caves never seemed to end. There was always more, which left us (to this day) wanting to go back.

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(Look closely and you can see me)

When I think about teaching and learning, I have to ask: To what extent is my course a place of exploration? In the macro sense, I will move students deeper into the caves of the subject matter and their intellectual development. There are big questions that we can always revisit. In other words, if my course had one question that all our material would seek to address, what would it be? For example, I teach Inquiry and the Craft of Argument to undergraduates. One big question for the course next term is:

To what extent do people make decisions about what to believe and do based on sound reasoning?

One cave in this course is the exploration and examination of what it means to have confidence in sound reasoning.

On a micro, day-to-day, level, we find ourselves moving through questions (like tunnels) that may splinter off or end. We find ourselves back tracking, setting markers to find our way back out. We create mental maps by noting features and experiences in certain places. We manage our expectations and desires so that we can come out safely, but inspired. We periodically stop to assess our resources, progress and goals. We collaborate with partners to choose lines of inquiry, to check our egos, and to share the enjoyment of discovery. We see things that we may wish to explore later.

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I know these are metaphorical abstractions, so what might an example look like?

Assumptions are a always a good place to start. A key to teaching students to think critically and creatively is to help them identify and examine their assumptions relevant to the the subject, course and teaching and learning responsibilities. How often do we crawl into the cave of a text and ask students to uncover the author’s assumptions? How often do we challenge them to explore the extent to which their assumptions direct their behaviors and, therefore, what they see when they read, write, listens, build? How often do they fair-mindedly examine my assumptions about what they are to learn and do?

The right frame of mind, the right network, the right resources, and the right tools (even if we have to make them) can help us do amazing things. In the caves of inquiry, we find parts of ourselves that had we not ventured in might be unknown forever. So, with respect to Plato’s cave, I say there is a time to go deeper inside.



Thinking About My Professional Development Plan

Last week, I sat down with a few of my colleagues in our center called ALT Lab here at VCU. The topic of conversation was: building things. Specifically, we asked: What do you want to build, do and learn that you typically do not have time for? Regardless of all the standard tasks and projects we manage in any given day, week, month, semester and year, is it possible to carve time for something new that each of us finds personally valuable and challenging? The core question really is: What is the plan for my professional development?

We decided to rally around a theme since we all have different interests, perspectives and technological skill levels. We agreed to explore “text” as the organizing theme. My professional development plan relevant to this theme is to increase my technological proficiency. I have chosen to frame all my explorations around teaching and learning; specifically, I am exploring how text can help me develop learning experiences for students in a class I will be teaching next semester.
What follows is my first list of possible topics to dive into:

  • Self as Text using Timeline JS to track intellectual development throughout the semester aligning it to departmental and general educational goals.
  • To assist with student writing and reasoning, I’m learning more about how to use Google Playback Editor.
  • Telescoping text is actually blowing my mind with possibility. I want to figure out how to make my syllabus using this tool.
  • I am currently taking on the #blimage challenge (blog image), but to develop my own illustrative thinking and technical skills, I am diving into DS106.

These are the tools I’m currently exploring.

What’s your ideal teaching habitat?


This question emerged from a conversation. The Moth podcast canvassed a story told by Molly Ringwald, the famous 80’s actress. She was talking about the difficulties with her young daughter that emerged when schools (and school environments) changed. The punchline came toward the end of her narrative when she realized that her daughter was having difficulties (emerging bullying behavior) at the new school because she was not in her ideal learning habitat. The story was beautifully told recounting how this insight came when she and her daughter were listening to a different podcast hosted by Radio Lab. It was a story about zoos and the first time an adult gorilla named Kiki went outside. gorillaPowerful account of human ignorance, nature and behavior, and the power of natural habitats. It made me give further consideration to the question of teaching and learning habitats.

I began to wonder: What is the ideal (natural) habitat for my kids? Does one fit both? To what extent do we force a particular way of thinking, of learning, of interacting on students who may have different needs and desires? To what extent are the artificial learning habitats we create conducive to the types of thinking and behaviors (e.g. skills, abilities, dispositions, knowledge) necessary to survive and thrive in the world outside the classroom walls?

Britt Watwood has an April 2014 post that addressed the new nomadic learner in the modern era of online and networked learning pondering: How can I cultivate knowledge nomads who learn rhizomatically and create their own knowledge domains? This question places the focus on the student. Learning and living habitats are changing, so what do students need to know and be able to do to adapt to those changes? In a March 2014 post by Jeff Nugent takes a different approach exploring the question: What might it mean to teach like an octopus? Nugent places the focus on the instructor and acknowledges that intellectual flexibility is a desirable quality given the variation in students we encounter.


Today, I want to take a slightly different approach to the question and ask: What is my natural (ideal) teaching habitat? In other words, under what conditions do I thrive as an instructor? What makes me, or would make me, happy and excited? I am driven to ponder these questions because without a clear understanding of the ideal, then I question the extent I can sufficiently manage the realities of the instructional contexts to which I am assigned. In logic and conceptual analysis, this thinking move is termed: Identifying the paradigm cases on either extreme of an issue or idea (see John Wilson’s Thinking with Concepts). Illustratively, I might frame it this way:

The Ideal                              The Real (If I’m lucky)


We are all very familiar with the realities of our teaching habitats. All too often they feel like a zoo: walls, regulations, schedules, and artificial experiences. How, then, might I move toward the ideal….for me? I believe that my happiness as an instructor has direct and maybe even proportional consequences for students. I want to explore ways I can pragmatically move toward the ideal. If that means less grading, then I am going to figure out ways to make that happen while maintaining intellectual rigor.

If we don’t ask, we can’t imagine.

Repairing Identity – Necessary for Deep Learning


This is a beautifully complex topic; so much so that it causes me some hesitation writing about it in a concise way. Then again, isn’t that one of the functions of a blog?

The core of the provoking questions site I work on is, in large part, one of mining our identities as educators (instructors, learning facilitators, coaches, co-learners, etc.).

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The terms we use tell us a lot about how we conceive of our roles and ourselves within those roles for better or worse. Two dangers I see are over-simplification and rigidity. These are at the core of what I am reflecting on today. Stated interrogatively:

To what extent can my academic identity be an obstacle to deep learning for my students and myself? 

Last week I was participating in the VCU Institute on Inclusive Teaching.  The second day had Quentin Alexander and Zewelanji Serpell speak on “Stereotype Threat and Solo Status in the Classroom.”  The conversation was organized around identity. Our first activity was to think of 3 words (maybe 4) that each of us consider our individual identity labels, then we shared our descriptors with a partner. This is really difficult because I see life (our lives and my life) as complex. It’s tough to simplify. Are there words that speak to the core of who I am or how I see myself? Is there a core? It turns out that many people had difficulty. Nonetheless, patterns emerged in the ensuing discussion.

People largely discussed their real-world identities in terms of familial status (father, grandmother, sister, etc), professional status (professor, lawyer, etc.) and social status/sub-group (religious affiliation, friend, dancer, musician, conservationist, etc.). One of the goals of this activity was to highlight similarities among individuals. Another goal was to expose the dangers of over-simplification and labeling.  As I work on this question, I am also revisiting a book I blogged about here by James Paul Gee. Yesterday, I began rethinking this experience in light of Gee’s three identities framework.

Gee has a chapter entitled “Learning and Identity: What does it mean to be half elf?” One purpose of the chapter is to unravel the complex relationships between our virtual identities (Our Roles -context dependent- e.g. video game characters we play or “student as scientist“), our real-world identities (Our Status (whole self) – e.g. familial, professional, social, academic = “learner as scientist”), and our projective identities (Our Desires/Aspirations – the projection of our values and desires onto the virtual identity = learner as scientist).  Another purpose is to explore the extent to which the various ways we might interface or manage these identities in context can point to learning principles that can be a guide for crafting deep learning experiences for students. For example: The Identity Principle: “Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (p. 64). I reread this yesterday and made a connection.


Of course, my thinking went directly to how faculty learn and its implications for crafting faculty development experiences.

Our sense of self can be empowering and inhibiting. So much depends on experience (as the scholarship on adult learning has taught us) and so much depends on context (a big shout out to sociology, psychology and behavioral economics to name a few). I want to focus on a few barriers here.

How do we know when the identity we project in the classroom acts as an obstacle to deep learning? We can apply this question to our students learning as well as our own. I’ll try to parse them out.

I am reminded of Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. In a sense, Goffman makes the case that the identities we want (projective) manifest themselves in the varied contexts of our lives and to various degrees. In other words, our projective identities function at the confluence of our virtual and real-world identities. Abstract enough? What does this look like, and what are some of the challenges?

If we want students to respect us, we might begin the semester establishing credibility. We list our credentials, our publications, and emphasize anything that might make us look smart. According to VCU’s Faedah Totah & Emily Williams IIT presentation – “Stereotype Threat and the Instructor” – female professors tend to spend more time establishing credibility than do their male counterparts. This is due, in part, to the tendency of students to erroneously stereotype female instructors as less capable or intelligent. Unfortunately, Totah and Williams argued that there is a sense in which establishing credibility reinforces prejudicial thinking on the part of students. Similar assumptions (often built and reinforced by past experiences) in this context are found in younger faculty. both female and male, and in those who are not in the racial majority.


Our real world identities (gender, age and race) influence our virtual identities (the role as the professor). Both are affected by our projective identities: Who do we want to be? How do I want other so see me?

Another example that I hear often is related to credibility, but involves our expectations for performance. We call it “rigor.” Our real world identity as former students, at which professors were very successful, informs our virtual identity as the rigorous professor that is fused with assumptions and values of what intellectual work looks like and what the intellectually disciplined should do. (Side note: “should” is an indicator of a prescriptive assumption that declares our views of what the world ought to look like and how it ought to function).


How can our identity as the “rigorous instructor” create problems? Simply stated: know your context. For example, I spoke with a young professor once who said “I did it, why can’t they?” She was complaining about her students’ poor performance and general lack of intellectual discipline and grit. Interestingly enough, this instructor graduated with a Ph.D. from and ivy league school, in mathematics, and is a female. She is the statistical anomaly, yet she projected her life experiences as a learner on a population who were in an open enrollment urban university with a high minority population. In essence, her assumptions about learning did not match the reality of the population she served. Consequently, she could not communicate effectively with students, which limited her pedagogical options. Our task was to expand those options appropriate to context while not grossly compromising her values of academic rigor.

So much of faculty development is about self-exploration. I have integrated the exploration of our instructor identities in every workshop/seminar that addresses topics of crafting and cultivating meaningful learning experiences for students for at least the last five years. Of course, there are many approaches and methods for mining what I see as a very rich source of information.

3 Brief Examples (there are many more)

  1. I’ve challenged instructors to mine their personal intellectual history (e.g. how they have come to think critically) as a guide to pedagogical methods. We’ve even done this a couple times using a technology like Timeline JS. I then showed them how my students use the same software to log their intellectual journeys as part of their portfolios.
  2. I’ve facilitated learning experiences that utilized art and poem as a window into exploring fears and aprehensions. For example, the Pablo Neruda’s poem entitled “We Are Many” has proven very useful for this goal.
  3. I’ve even had instructors complete the same activity I have my undergraduate students make on the first day of class: Make two lists that complete the following sentences: “The teacher’s job is…” and “The student’s job is…” We then analyze the lists to highlight the assumptions we project on the learning roles and, therefore, expected behaviors.

Such approaches target our identities; our sense of self – virtual, real world or projective. If faculty development does not have space for self exploration, then can we expect transformative pedagogy? Create relationships, build on strengths, and challenge for growth.

Moreover, without a vision or concept of my professional growth, I doubt that I will be able to transfer those experiences into classroom practice. Just as important, will I have a clear conception of my journey or evolution as an instructor? If not, how can I plan? Hmmmmm…


So, who am I? What is my instructor self? I want to see myself as aware, flexible, disciplined and exciting. My identity has evolved from one of “cool new guy” to “establishing credibility” to now (17 years later) one of a provocateur who challenges students assumptions to develop richer world views, skills and dispositions.  I would like to identify my teaching self as a craftsman: intentional, planned, problem solver, present, who acts with love and respects the process. However, I fall short because it’s more than that. I want to be a co-learner: curious, humble, disciplined, and hungry for more knowledge. However, I fall short because teaching seems so much more complex at times. So, who am I? I’m still working on that. I have moments of clarity.

Another way to think about it, a little intellectually playful, is to look at it through the lens of a question: What’s your teaching super hero power? What’s mine, and what does that say about who I am, the roles I play, and what I want to be?

My journey with (dun dun duuuuun) Twitter.

This post is both a reflective piece and something that others (particularly faculty and students) might find helpful as Twitter (and possible future manifestations) become greater factors in how we connect with others. My goal is to be honest with myself, but I know how that goes when posting with an audience in mind.

I struggle with Twitter. I have always struggled with Twitter, and I’m confident I’ll continue to struggle with it. I don’t want it to be so laborious, but it is. Why?


Part of it  is that I don’t really care about what people had for breakfast (thanks for the link Tom Woodward and google).  Another part of it is that I find the overload of information intimidating. I went from living in a cabin to living in a city, and if that wasn’t intense enough, now have to filter what sometimes seems like loud digital noise? Upon deeper reflection though, I see that these points (although valid) don’t get to the essence of my hesitation owning, being part of, and embracing connectivist tools like Twitter.

At its core, I want something important to say. Here’s the thing, I started blogging last year and I had the same concern: Who would want to hear what I have to write about? I challenged myself, and now I enjoy blogging.  I’m not the best at it nor am I extremely fluent, but I got over the “I hate this thing” barrier. I’m just not there with Twitter …yet.

A colleague of mine, Laura Gogia, made a strong case for connected learning.  She and others spent the time to help me understand the implications of tweeting as a mode for finding, connecting, and contributing to conversations that move well beyond my institution. I can articulate and, more importantly, understand the importance of what connected learning in a networked world is and can be. I’ve experienced it (in micro ways), and I want students to experience the benefits of actively participating dialogue on a global scale. If I “know” it, why have I not embraced it as part of my daily professional life?


At this point, I think it’s about habit. I have not created the pattern of behavior. There are layers to this I admit. I have noticed that I am more active on Twitter when I am at my desktop computer using a tool called Tweetdeck. It is so useful in helping me cope with the firehose of posts. I can organize what and how I see information. I just need to put it on my laptop since I spend most of my time away from my desk. (Don’t ask me about my cell phone…you’d probably laugh. Cabin remember?).  Upon deeper examination, though, it is just so outside of my normal (now habitual) way of thinking and being that I find it extremely difficult to plug-in in ways like tools like Twitter want us to. This is an excuse; I’ll own it. Why?…because I am also quite fluent at managing my time, my workload, and my life commitments.

Life is noise. Managing the noise is a matter of volume control. In other words, it is a matter of choice. Up until this moment I have chosen to behave in a way that counters my convictions to connected learning under the guise that my other set of values (quite solitude) has no room for connectedness through tools like Twitter. This is a false dilemma. Why don’t I utilize my skill set to manage the volume? Stubbornness is the most likely thing; holding onto a dream that I’ll still be invited on the Lewis and Clark expedition (211 years after the fact).


I have another conviction (value set): What I say I will do, I will do. This is a promise I made to myself, I made to my wife prior to marriage, and I make to my children and friends. Sure, I stumble here and there, but always for good reason. It is a conviction I live by. I have a skill set and I believe in the importance of creating intellectual communities. Connecting is a key method for practicing what I preach, and Twitter is a good tool for doing so. Am I a Twitter convert? Not necessarily, and I’m sure another tool will eventually replace it, but it is a very valuable tool right now. It’s valuable because it can help me do what I want to do.

I’m not trying to create Twitter converts by any means (I’m not one for brand loyalty), but this reflection is intended to say that I am open. Right now I find myself in the web, but not of the web. Being of the web can help me give back. If Twitter can help me do that better, then I need to use it. When a more effective tool presents itself to me, then I’ll use that, and I will still find time to be alone…in and of nature.