What does being humbled really look/feel like?
This past spring/summer/autumn has been another interesting experience or perhaps series of experiences for me. Firstly I have had little time to write – neither my book nor this editorialog has progressed very far. Secondly my teaching was a mixture of highs and surprises. And thirdly I actually got to enjoy a stay-cation (to go along with a couple of trips).
Mixed in with all this has been another learning moment – I’ve found out, once again, that I’m not as smart as I sometimes think I am and yet I also discovered that learning is a good thing and I’m glad it hasn’t stopped with/for me.
This spring I had the opportunity to teach at my alma mater – the wonderful and energetic University of Alberta – in the ELLA program (Edmonton Lifelong Learning Association sponsored spring session). This is a three week intensive program wherein students (all of whom are at least fifty  years old I believe, although the vast majority are over sixty and retired) can take up to four courses while also attending special noon hour lectures &/or presentations. I was invited to teach a course on applied ethics and my proposed curriculum and related syllabus was vetted by a faculty committee of the UofA and the Board of ELLA. My first proposal was returned as there was concern about the rigor in my pedagogy as well as depth in curriculum – so in response, because I didn’t know any of the key reviewers, I ramped up the activities and stressed the interactive nature of my pedagogical approach. Eventually I was approved and I eagerly looked forward to the learning/teaching experience.
Well, sometimes it does pay to ask more questions, delve more deeply into the actual workings of a program that is new to you. I had assumed that the concern with my curriculum was that it was not heavy enough – that there was not enough meat on the bones so to speak. So I beefed it up with the addition of a textbook (I provided people with a copy of Cowboy Ethics – they had to pay a deposit, but if at the end they didn’t want to keep the book, I’d return the deposit when they returned the book) and a novel (Wind Without Rain which I also provided, as I have a thirty-copy classroom-useable set). The first day of class there were about twice as many participants as I had expected (due to the sudden cancellation of another course) but that was okay because the classroom had a fair degree of flexibility in the seating options and it had good teaching technologies (at least ones that I knew how to operate!!).
I gave my regular opening day’s talk and had a conversation about my hopes and expectations for the course. A couple individuals seemed less than enthralled but since I had been warned that people get three days to move about checking out courses, I knew that they would simply move on. And by Day III, the class seemed well settled in (a number of the obviously unhappy folk had moved on). Because they were all adults, and well-seasoned at that, I didn’t think I had to tell them to only do what they wanted with the material that I was sharing. Furthermore, I didn’t follow-up on any complaints about the reading material as I assumed that anyone that didn’t want to, wouldn’t bother…
This turned out to be a bad assumption. I should have asked point-blank, why were they concerned? It wasn’t till near the end of the week that my introducer/moderator (an individual supplied by ELLA to make sure that each class got the daily announcements as well as providing some classroom assistance to the prof) told me that people not only expected no assignments to be done after class, they had also been assured that there would be no extra-classtime reading AND, most of them were taking the full four  course a day learning load. Now, at this point, a smart, contemporary, youthful prof would undertake a significant course correction – recall the text and reading books, revise the curriculum, and tone down the scope. Not I, I simply figured the participants would do it for themselves, on an as-needed basis (and a few did, returning both books by the beginning of Week II).
The class went very well from my perspective. People came to class and energetically participated in the small group conversations, listened attentively to each other as well as to the prof whenever I delivered a mini-lecture. Moreover they seemed to enjoy the various case studies that I provided via videos. There was frequent before-class Q&A’s in the hallway while we awaited the previous course to wrap-up (it often ran overtime, much against policy, but I didn’t take much notice). My sense was that the vast majority of the participants were enjoying the learning moment. It wasn’t until there was a late afternoon ELLA-sponsored party at the Faculty Club that I discovered there was some discontent. Firstly, few of the class actually decided to go to this event, even when I told them that I would host a special table; secondly, this event came about two days before the end of the program and right in the middle of course evaluation time.
The people who did come to the Faculty Club were very supportive of both the pedagogical and the curricular formats and had taken advantage of all the extra reading materials. But, they informed me, some people had done so begrudgingly seemingly not willing to simply ignore the tasks (which other dissenters did). Nevertheless the conversations that continued for a couple of hours shifted to discuss a second ethics course that they felt would be a good follow-up – Applied Ethics 2.0 addressing more of the daily questions that we face. When I suggested more use of the Ethics Unwrapped video vignettes there was immediate support as the few examples that I had showed during the course had piqued their interest and curiosity. By the time we parted I was excited about the possibilities and thankful for the feedback.
At the final class I apologized for the misunderstandings around reading materials and indicated that the next version would be less demanding and totally confined to the classroom setting. In addition I handed out my own evaluation form to gain additional critical feedback and thanked all those that remained to the conclusion (about 2/3’s of the first day’s numbers) so a great learning moment for me. And then we departed.
A summary of the feedback provided via my own evaluation form gave me some insights as to what the real complaints were and the degree of happiness or not that existed within the class. While predominately positive, there were a few indicators of discontent with the experience. I basically chalked that up to my exuberance with reading tasks and began to work on Applied Ethics 2.0!! Then I received the official course critique from the U of A and it was considerably more blunt. It was filled in by more than those who had completed my form and it was striking in it’s findings. Half of the respondents were very excited about the course; the other half definitely declared to be against the prof and the course. 50/50 has occasionally been part of my life and work, but seldom (if ever) in relation to my teaching moments. It was a sobering moment so I contacted one of the program officials to express my concern as well as my optimism about Applied Ethics 2.0 and received a very supportive ear. It was pointed out that there was clear evidence that the course had stirred up people’s thinking as well as reactions to the work load and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It still bothered me that I had not done a better job of fully understanding the scope of the expectations that students would have of any course and that I had not reacted more quickly when displeasure was raised at the amount of reading I was recommending. Moreover, I’ve revised enough courses on the fly over my lifetime to make it a relatively simple matter to shift during the first week and re-develop the curriculum then and there (I was only teaching one course a day, so time wasn’t that big a factor). The question really was: am I losing my cachet as a teacher? Perhaps, but maybe the question would be best answered by trying one more time – now knowing the written and unwritten rules of the ELLA concept I was confident that 2.0 would significantly alter the 50%/50% great/not-so-much feedback.
With this moment of unsettled learning, I then went to Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) to teach my Ethical Reasoning & Environmental Health course, a variant I have been teaching/revising/teaching since 2000. It went very well and in many ways my sense of focus and creative delivery was reinforced. Unfortunately, due to an administrative error at CUE the official student evaluation form was not properly made available to the students and so I do not have the formal feedback from them to give a counterbalance to the earlier moment at the UofA. However I am continuing to teach at CUE (this autumn I have two graduate courses on my schedule).
So where does this humility theme go now? Well, just in case I was beginning to think I was as smart as I thought, I received a nudge to re-think that perception. This week I checked back with my contact at ELLA to continue my discussions about Applied Ethics 2.0 – I was succinctly informed that all the courses had already been decided a couple of months ago but I could perhaps think about applying in 2020…