The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) is a university with a historical STEM focus and an incredibly diverse student population. I was initially brought to UTD to teach courses in Arts and Humanities that reach across the STEM-Humanities divide. In the five and a half years I have taught here I have enjoyed crafting more than 20 different courses, most of which bring the humanities and sciences into conversation. For instance, I have taught Literature of Science courses such as the “Mismeasure of Man” and “Viruses,” humanities courses like “Fantastic Bodies” and “Science and the Humanities,” and courses listed by the biology department on “Disability Studies” for our honors pre-med majors. My passion for biology and the human body do not limit the ways I connect across the university. In the past year, I have been working closely with faculty in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication to create course projects that bring together students in the humanities with digital technologies and students in digital media studio courses. By making these connections my literature students can connect their textual study to the lived world through both scholarly interpretation made manifest in digital and analogue technologies, as well as civic engagement.
I have worked with many different kinds of students at UTD—students from the liberal arts and hard sciences, students from privileged educational backgrounds and those older and nontraditional, students for whom school is easy and those with a variety of physical or learning impairments. In order to bring students with varied backgrounds into one of the upper-division courses that I teach I have a set of scaffolded student goals: students must learn how to be students in the discipline at hand, students need to feel safe to invest deeply and be willing to take risks, and students need to know that in the end we value learning to mastery, not just performance of mastery. In order for most to fully commit to a course and take intellectual risks, they need to feel that they are in a safe environment with clearly articulated rules and protections. While I have high expectations about their achievement, I make it clear that they are not engaging in the process of learning alone, and that my courses are not a trial in which they are at war with course material that resists being learned. From this foundation, we can then focus on the specific learning objectives that are set out for the individual course. For instance, posing critical analysis questions and writing essays about stories and books from class are central to the study of the humanities. In order for the students to learn such skills, I provide models to guide them, we deconstruct exemplars of student work together in class, I meet with students one-on-one to provide feedback, and the students have opportunities to repeat assignments in order to improve their skills. Since I teach so many different courses and students often take multiple courses with me these practices create continuity of development across semesters. We do not think in terms of mastery over one semester, but mastery over many. Moreover, we think in terms of learning reusable skills, applicable beyond the classroom.
I regularly arrive to class with articles that I’ve discovered in the past week that are relevant to the topic of the day. I model curiosity and excitement about the material, and, as a result, students begin to bring information to class that they have found and want to share with the class. Recently I had students arrive to class eager to share details about their outside research on the translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis from the original German, facts about healthy sperm counts in men to bring perspective to a Science Fiction story set in a post-nuclear war world with a fertility crisis, and genealogical research that links the student to one of the key female reformers studied in my women’s literature course, “Rebels and Reformers.” When we are learning from each other, I know they are deeply engaged in the course and that together we have built a learning community that extends beyond the walls of the university.
Success in university is not a mystery. There are many paths and practices that lead to success and I reveal as many of them as possible to my students. After a few semesters at the UTD I discovered that many students did not know how to master university, so I crafted a set of “Pro Tips,” which I include in every syllabus. Some of these tips include:
- Write in your books and/or take notes while you read. Come to class with questions, sections of texts you want to discuss already flagged, and comments to make. Your participation in the class discussion begins when you are reading.
- Consider using an audiobook version of the texts alongside the print texts if you think it would help you.
- Get the contact information of a couple of students in case you miss a class. Consider discussing the readings, your papers and projects with each other before they are due.
With confidence, I can say to the students that I was once an undergraduate like them: I procrastinated when I had assignments due, I withdrew from my classes in my freshman year due to illness, and yet I learned a lot, enjoyed my courses, had good relationships with my professors and classmates, earned good grades, and was able to get into graduate school when the time came.
As a result of my self-awareness and experience, I have three strategies that I use to help facilitate student learning in the classroom. First, I make incredibly detailed syllabi and lesson plans before the semester begins, so that I may focus intensely on each class meeting and still be assured that the course will progress in a systematic manner. Second, when I explain a new concept or technique in class, I follow up by asking another student who has mastered the concept or technique to explain it in their own words. Third, at different moments in the semester, I discuss different types of intellectual work, as well as learning and education theory. The more they know about their own learning, the more able they are to proceed toward mastery.
As a woman with disabilities, a parent of a child with a vision impairment, and a scholar who works on disability studies, I am committed to facilitating educational accessibility for my students. All my students are encouraged to share their accommodations and needs with me. I make sure they know that I have a genuine interest in removing any barriers in the course material and the classroom. Therefore, I use universal design approaches that create materials and an environment accessible to all students with or without impairments. Not only are all the class materials available online, so students can use adaptive technologies with them, but I urge students to listen to audiobooks alongside their paper copies. Many students without diagnosed impairments find that these approaches improve their own understanding and retention.
I model practices of universal design in the classroom; for example, captions are turned on when we watch videos in class and students take turns taking class notes that I scan and make available online. This past year I was delighted to see that practices of universal design in the classroom had become internalized protocols for my students as well. Last spring semester during a class presentation a student included an excerpt from an old film. When he started the clip, it was captioned! I was surprised and asked how he had found a copy of this video with captions. “I learned how to do it online and did it myself,” he answered. On the first day of class this semester, a student who has taken a number of my classes volunteered to do an optional in-class presentation on the second day of class. One of our students in class has a vision disability and I had made a large-print handout of the presenters work for that student. However, when the presenter arrived with her handouts she announced, “there are five large-print copies on the bottom of the stack for anyone who would like them.” She proceeded to pass them out without any further comment. This was the perfect moment for me to announce that this is class protocol for the rest of the semester. Universal design is becoming an important value in workplaces and educational institutions and my students show they are developing this approach as second nature over time. Moreover, knowledge of possible accommodations improves self-advocacy. Self-advocacy in a safe environment will have long-term benefits, since success breeds both confidence and a mindful awareness of their own needs and the needs of others.
Mindfulness in the class is essential for crafting an effective classroom experience. When I taught courses on Buddhism in a college Religious Studies Department we studied the basic notion of being mindfully present in each moment. This is harder than it sounds, but my students found that it was transformative in their experience in all their classes. Our application of this idea was embodied by the simple act of focusing on class for however long they were in it; they tried being truly present. My class of juniors and seniors expressed they wished they had learned to be mindful in the moment, and not distracted by issues outside the classroom when they were freshmen. For me, this means not just following the lesson plan, but also finding teachable moments that arise spontaneously.
The diversity of the student body at UTD allows for many teachable moments that on first glance seem to lie outside the limits of our scholarly training. In Spring 2015, I taught “Unruly Women,” a course on women’s literature. The books I chose for class reflected my own area of expertise, but my students came from an array of backgrounds broader than I could responsibly address. When I realized this, it troubled me and I discussed this with my students. About a month into class, I created an optional project for the entire class that answered this limitation. The students were invited to do an old-fashioned book report about a book that was meaningful to them. More than half the students participated, and the mix of texts was delightful. The students who presented their books felt heard and valued by me and by their classmates. One young woman whose parents had emigrated from Pakistan, presented the first book in the Ms. Marvel series. The protagonist of Ms. Marvel lives in Jersey City, is Muslim, and is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. The book is a great example of a bildungsroman or coming of age story. A year later, in 2016, I included Ms. Marvel as the final text in my “Hero’s Journey” Fantasy Literature course. The same student who introduced the book to me originally happened to be taking that class. She was thrilled to present the book to the class and help lead the discussion. The students who were avid comic book readers already loved the series for its smart writing and dense artwork. The students who were the children of immigrant parents loved the way that the book resonated with their own experience. The students who had never read a graphic novel were surprised by the complexity of the text. It was a magical discussion that arose because we were authentically present in the shared classroom.