Remember Your First Year?

by: Jamie L. Frye

Early_career_facultyWhether your first year as a faculty member was last year or 20 years ago, we can all recollect what it was like to start juggling multiple expectations as a faculty member and not knowing how to do it well. There’s no doubt that many of us felt as if we were navigating these uncharted academic waters single-handedly. But why grapple with common first year questions and uncertainties alone when there are numerous people right here at JMU with great insight to share? That’s why the CFI developed Peer Orientation & Development Groups (a.k.a. PODs) to support early career faculty in their first year at JMU.

POD groups are led by two early career faculty members who devise a monthly agenda to help support first year faculty. Faculty members who attend these groups are provided with the opportunity to take a break from their daily “to do list” and to think about the overview of their beginning career. In these meetings, individuals develop their personal/professional mission and vision, determine their professional strengths and weaknesses as they develop their academic self, determine how they can best document their professional growth, and learn about services on campus that can best support their development. PODs also help members learn about community opportunities (social or professional), network with new faculty to discuss current challenges (such as time management and how to increase productivity), or how to deal with common academic challenges (such as plagiarism, ethics, or difficult student mentalities). Taking time to think past their next lecture and to consider what they want their career to become enables faculty to start taking the beginning steps toward those goals. As many of us know, it’s those initial steps in our careers that get us grounded and pointed in the right direction. While formal opportunities to mentor are advantageous, so are informal opportunities. I encourage us all to seek out a new faculty member to say hello and to see how their new position is faring. If we remember anything from our first year, it is definitely those people whom were kind enough to offer answers to our questions, provide sought after advice, and to just give us a friendly smile!

If you are a new faculty member and would still like to join a POD Group, please check to see if a scheduled POD time works for you.

First Generation and the Unfamiliar Academy

by: Ed Brantmeier

Making the familiar strange, the strange familiar—this is the work of ethnography from the vantage point of an anthropologist whose name escapes me at the moment. In terms of first generation college status — I call a related concept “dual alienation.”  In informal conversations I’ve had with faculty and students who are the first in their families to attend college, they seem to “not quite fit” in the Academy and after they attended college for a while, several have reported they don’t quite fit in their home communities and sometimes their family context any longer.  Dual alienation— these individuals no longer quite fit in the world of work and the world of home.  In his book Limbo: Blue–Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, Alfred Lubrano calls these people who occupy liminal spaces “Straddlers.” First generation students and faculty, sometimes an invisible minority, experience a different set of struggles than the rest who may have the social and cultural capital revered by the Academy.  My own experience as a First Generation faculty has been one of making the strange familiar, and in the process, the familiar has become strange.  Understanding the complex cultural terrain of the life of the University requires an ethnographic eye for the behaviors, values, and material realities valued in that system.

Join us for the First Gen FIG on Friday if you identify with these musings…

In peace, Ed Brantmeier

Scholarly Blogging: Changing Expectations or Behaviors?

by: Carol Hurney

Earlier this week a story on NPR reflected on studies performed in 1964 by Robert Rosenthal exploring how teacher expectations of student ability influenced how they interacted and worked with students.  Briefly, Rosenthal demonstrated that teachers provide more feedback, approval, and time to answer questions to students they were told were on the “verge of an intensive intellectual bloom.”  Yes, these teachers changed their behaviors based on expected learning outcomes – not demonstrated performance – but expectations of performance.  Rosenthal also documented that the teachers made small behavioral changes by spending more time smiling, touching, and sending approving nods to the students they were told had higher intellectual potential.

The part of the story that really intrigued me was the follow up conversation about the work currently being done by Robert Pianta, faculty and dean at the UVa Curry School of Education.  Continue reading

Expertise: Lore or Allure?

by: Cara Meixner

As faculty, each of us cultivates an area of expertise. Specialists in a field or fields of inquiry, we are paid, promoted, and (too often) critiqued for knowing a lot about a little. The very process of earning a PhD exacerbates this status, and it isn’t uncommon for the “freshly-minted” varietal to confess the sacrifices they have made in exchange for the doctorate. While I would likely do the same all over again, I cannot, for instance, reclaim years void of earnest, novice inquiry into world affairs, politics, pop culture, and – yes – the New York Times Bestseller list. The more expertise I grew in my discipline, the more ignorant I became of happenstances outside of the social sciences.

Members of the academic community cultivate the ever-elusive “expertise” through research, scholarly inquiry, teaching, advising, and more (dare I mention doctoral comps?). An other-proclaimed “expert” methodologist in qualitative and mixed methods inquiry, I find that very status subject to its own critique – and another blog post. We work tirelessly to till our expertise areas, predominately through our contributions to the intersected milieus of scholarship and research. Therein, we share a disciplinary culture within which norms, mores, rhetoric, and philosophies are bred and deconstructed.

Our expertise is also reflected in our teaching and in the means through which our students learn and grow in the coeducational context. I may possess expertise, but if I cannot bring the material to life and inspire the flourishing of nimble minds, am I really expert? Many would argue that experts are the best instructors. Not the case, notes author and psychologist Therese Huston (2009): “Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and educational psychology suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised” (p. 45).

As it stands, the more expert we become in our subject matter, the less efficacious we are at estimating time on task, predicting novice students’ performance, and motivating students to learn (Huston, 2009). Content experts often live in a world of advanced abstractions when many of our students, particularly those who are novice to the subject matter, require cognitive scaffolding – a structure that helps get them move from the concrete (e.g., foundational exploration) to the abstract (e.g., synthesis and application). Huston paraphrases two empirical findings in her text; one, students taught by content experts make more mistakes on problem sets than those taught by content novices (i.e., individuals who are also in the process of learning the material). Second, learners rank content novices above experts in the teaching of problem-solving skills.

Initially, I balked at the findings; that is, until I found that they are well supported by the literature. Still, I found myself pondering the enigma of “expertise” until one day, in the fifth week of a beginner’s yoga class, a probing thought entered my mind as I inhabited full novice status on that mat. The backstory is as such: this was my third “try” at yoga. Prior to the current foray, I had attempted yoga on several occasions. My first stab, no pun intended, ended in abject physical pain. The teacher, who had been leading classes for more than a decade and had written “the” book on some style of yoga I cannot pronounce, taught yoga in a “watch me-then follow- all while I talk to you in Sanskrit” manner. Her poses were elegant and swan-like; when I attempted mimicry, I fell on my side, landing hard on my hip. Merely watching her was enough learning; copying her was my own disgrace.

A few years later, I tried yoga again, this time with a friend. The instructor ran the studio like a boot camp. Breathe, breathe, breeeaaaathe, she chanted in raspy harmony. Within 10 minutes, I was breathing on the edge of hyperventilation and I couldn’t hold a pose. Blue in the face, I nearly passed out in downward-facing dog.

Not one to give up, I resolved to give yoga another “go” in 2011. This time, it was as if I’d entered another universe… a learning space completely unlike what I had experienced prior. Having recently completed a yoga certification, my instructor instructed us with an air of empathy and positive regard. Applying metaphor and a hands-on approach, she guided us on how breathe before introducing even the most basic poses. Attuned to each of her learners, she taught us yoga by engaging us in the very elements my past teachers had neglected – how and why we breathe in yoga, how and why we time our breaths with poses, and so much more. And having just learned “yoga teaching” she was profoundly aware of the gaps, bottlenecks, and tough spots that novice learners experience.

The parallel process of learning something from a novice instructor while teaching novice learners from my “expert” status has been transformative. Often, we become so expert at something – tying our shoes for instance – that it becomes almost instinctual. I take for granted, for instance, my ability to understand and differentiate methodological concepts like induction, deduction, and abduction. Droning on to my students about their relevance would induce 30+ “trout” looks – quite similar to the fish face I donned in that first yoga class. To teach these concepts well, I have to recall in my mind’s eye what happened when I was learning research design, no matter how easy or hard that process was for me. And if it was easy for me, I remind myself of yoga: some individuals have natural gifts while others, like me in the yoga studio, require a bit more help to get from step 1 to step 10.

Talking Chicken and Critical Pedagogy of Place

by: Ed Brantmeier

Where do I come from? Since moving to Harrisonburg from the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, where the Big Thompson River provides water for Loveland and fly-rod fishing flourishes, I’ve quickly learned to talk chicken here in the lush Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Growing up in rural Wisconsin on an 80 acre farm near Stockbridge, a small village named after a local Native American tribe, my fondest memories are hanging out by the chicken coop. It was the gateway to the fence-line that formed a T where it met Calumet County Park. I could see Lake Winnebago over the tree-line of Calumet County Park—a park named after the Calumet—a peace pipe. My sister painted the sign at the gateway to the park that reads, “We extend the Calumet to all Humankind.” I have so many connections to that place and land—we ate the peas, corn, and cucumbers that grew in the farm fields and in our garden as children. I have so many connections to that place.

What is at the heart of place? Memories, connections, sustenance, community, love, family. The place we live now, Rockingham County, was once the poultry capital of the United States. It is a good place for talking chicken. Talking chicken has afforded me a connection with locals beyond the “town and gown” divides present in our demographically mixed locale—brought by two universities in a historically agrarian place. Raising chickens and talking chicken has allowed me to re-connect with my farming roots. Raising chickens and talking chicken simply means understanding the difference between barred rock and dominiques, mash or pellets for food, awareness of the need for sea shell to harden egg shells for layers, and knowing that free range is hands down better for the chickens, nutrition, and for your nostrils. The local knowledge arises from place. It arises from conversations with chicken enthusiasts and these opportunities have connected me with local people in positive community building ways.

What is a critical pedagogy of place? Thanks to Carole Nash, CFI Associate and friend, I was introduced to this powerful pedagogy with limitless applicability. Gruenewald (2003) synthesizes and analyses the orientations of critical pedagogy with place-based education and thereby defines the aims of a critical pedagogy of place:
a) identify, recover, and create material spaces and places that teach us how to live well in our total environments (reinhabitation): and
b) identify and change ways of thinking that injure and exploit other people and places (decolonization) (Gruenewald 2003, p. 9)
Gruenewald argues that the processes of reinhabitation and decolonization simultaneously put place and connection to the non-human world (place-based education) at the fore of educational endeavors while simultaneously deconstructing the power dynamics inherent in relationships (critical pedagogy)—both human to human and human with the natural world.

How can we use place to learn and connect? Community engagement is one of the mountains of pride we have at James Madison University. We have been designated a prestigious Carnegie Community Engaged University. A critical pedagogy of place seems a natural pedagogical fit to deepen that engagement with place—the stunning Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. We have multiple efforts going on with Community Service Learning, our Office of Outreach and Engagement, Institute for Innovations in Health and Human Services, and much, much more. I see much promise in my own students tutoring in the homes of local English Language Learners, working at after-school programs, volunteering for the fall International Festival. These efforts are building bridges in knowledge and experience and contributing to a positive sense of place in most cases. No doubt community engagement deepens the learning process, though we need more scholarship on this topic to “show what we know” to the rest of the academic community.

What do I want for my children? Connection, a sense of place. To bring this short musing full circle back to my present realities beyond the university—I want my sons to have a strong sense of place. Place-based pedagogy encourages this. My sons are talking chicken now. They know the difference between dominiques and Rhode Island Reds. They know that the dominiques have stopped laying because they are molting. They learned about the circle of life when a coopers hawk killed one of the dominiques—a first lesson in life, death, predation, and that life feeds on life. They are learning where their food comes from, a sense of place, of connection, of community. My hope is that one day they will remember these lessons of life, death, and connection to place. My hope is that the shadows, dances, and fall colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains will be fixed in their historical memories and provide them inspiration in times of hardship. In short, I hope they appreciate the beauty of talking chicken and the connection it affords.


Gruenewald, D.A. The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher 32, No. 4: 3-12.

Disposable Science

by: Carol Hurney

One of the most beautiful aspects of my discipline is the process of critically analyzing the scientific method.  Yes, the scientific method.  Wait, wait!  Don’t run away from this article screaming – OH NO!!!! NOT THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD??!?!  Just relax.  And why would you want to avoid a probing analysis of the scientific method?  Why does this topic sound so, well … boring?  Maybe because every science class you ever took started with a list of steps that the teacher referred to as the “scientific method?”  The list seemed simple enough – observe, generate hypotheses, design experiments, etc.  Unfortunately, it failed to stimulate any sort of interest or excitement.  How unfair.  Why does the most fabulous part of my discipline get SO short-changed when compared to more seemingly exciting topics like dolphins, HIV, and killer bees?  Why?  Because really understanding the beauty, power, and complexities of the scientific method is hard and is SO much more exciting than what you learned in your science classes.  Now don’t get me wrong, it is pretty easy to memorize a list of steps, but it is not so simple to become a scientific critic.  I know my degree says that I am a biologist, but I am really a scientific critic.  Sure, I know some stuff about biology, but more importantly I know when to believe the results of a scientific experiment and when the results of a scientific study should be thrown in the trash.  Yes, some science is disposable.  Unfortunately, bad, disposable science doesn’t have funky odor, grow green, slimy mold, or look that different from authentic science.  So, how do you know when science is disposable?

You can’t simply dispose certain scientific findings or discoveries because you don’t like them or they don’t align with your needs.  Every time I teach GBIO103, the non-majors general education course, I ask my students whether they regularly get the flu shot.  I continue to be shocked that a large majority of my students never get the flu shot.  When I ask why, they tell me things like… “I don’t get the flu.” or “I don’t like needles.” or “The flu shot isn’t 100% effective.”  I laugh heartily at the first response.  Who knew you could just decide whether or not you get an infectious disease.  The second response is valid and I understand that some people have a fear of needles.  But the last response indicates that my students are disposing the scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of the flu vaccine.  The scientific evidence on the efficacy of the flu vaccine is varied and reasonably solid, but never claims that the vaccine is 100% effective.  Unfortunately, the methodologies used to analyze the ability of the flu vaccine to prevent the flu are well, messy.  Just to refresh your memory the scientific method suggests that one way to meaningfully test a hypothesis is to perform a controlled experiment.  This concept of a control doesn’t mean that scientists control all aspects of the experiment, like what time of day the vaccines are administered, what the subjects eat for breakfast, and so on.  Rather, the control is something you can compare the results of the experiment to so that you can be sure that the effect you observe is meaningful.  In this case, a control would be a group of people who don’t get the flu shot, but do get direct exposure to the flu virus.  Yikes!  Who wants to volunteer for that group, especially since in some cases the flu can be fatal?  So, instead of performing controlled experiments, researchers often test the correlation between two variables.  In the case of the flu vaccine, there is strong positive correlation between getting the flu vaccine and NOT getting the flu.  Do some people who get the flu shot still get the flu?  Yes.  Does that mean that the vaccine isn’t effective?  No.  It just means that for some reason, the vaccine didn’t provide enough protection or was not administered in time.  Likewise, there are lots of people who don’t get the flu but did NOT get the vaccine.  In my opinion, they were lucky.  But that doesn’t mean that they “just don’t get the flu.”  Rather, it means that they weren’t exposed to the flu virus or if they were, their immune system was able to defeat the infection with little or no symptoms.  Ultimately, your opinion doesn’t influence whether science is disposable.  But your INFORMED opinion does!  Yes, you can decide whether science is disposable, but only if you really explore and critique the methods used to make a scientific claim.  How do you do this?  Well, you start by becoming a skeptic AND seeking out reliable scientific resources.  Google is good for some searches, but don’t rely on this search engine when you are looking for good science.  Most university libraries maintain wonderful websites with all sorts of reliable databases where you can begin your hunt for the real science behind the headlines.  And don’t expect that you will understand everything you find, but in time you will start developing the skills to dispose of some science.

Once you begin critiquing the scientific methods used to test hypotheses, a whole new world will open itself to you.  At some point along this journey, you will begin to appreciate the true challenges of the scientific method.  And every so often, you will come across a stunningly beautiful scientific study.  Beauty in science is not simply a visual pleasure, but is often found in how scientists execute their work. One of my favorite examples of scientific beauty is the famous experiment performed by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase in the 1950’s. Using nothing more than a simple household blender and some radioactive elements, these two scientists confirmed that DNA is the genetic material.  They were not the first scientists to test the hypothesis that DNA, not proteins, carried the information for inheritance, but they were the first to design an experiment that left even the staunchest critics speechless.  Scientists knew that a simple virus, called the T2 phage, could infect bacteria with a molecule that genetically altered the bacteria.  Hershey and Chase reasoned that if they could determine which molecule the T2 phage injected into the bacteria, they could put the DNA versus protein debate to rest.  Hershey and Chase also knew that the T2 phage is composed of only DNA and protein, thus simplifying their analysis by minimizing extraneous variables.  To test the hypothesis that DNA is the genetic material, they generated two versions of the T2 phage.  One version contained radioactive DNA and the other contained radioactive proteins … the perfect control.  They mixed each type of phage with bacteria, separated the T2 phage from the bacteria in a blender, and then determined which bacteria were radioactive.  Every time they performed this experiment they got the same result.  Only the bacteria infected with phage containing radioactive DNA contained radioactivity.  Thus the T2 phage was injecting DNA into the bacteria creating genetic changes to the bacteria … simple and beautiful confirmation that DNA is the genetic material.  Success!  How beautiful?

When scientists explore the efficacy of the scientific method, ponder the results of an experiment, or marvel at new scientific discoveries they undoubtedly are looking for any reason to discount, disprove, or dismantle.  I didn’t always do this – but now I do it so often, that my closest friends are growing weary of my constant skepticism of well, just about everything.  This can’t be a good way to look at the world … or is it?



Mindful Teaching: Being in the Thick of Things

by: Ed Brantmeier

Recently, I read some work of Parker Palmer where he asked the question, “Are you a human being or a human doing? In talking with a James Madison University colleague, Dave Pruett, he suggested that this theme was the heart of his recent graduation speech here. Dave suggested the challenge was being in the thick of things. After moments of reflection on how simple, yet great ideas often have different origins yet common insight (Think Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace), I began thinking about how the idea of human beings and human doings applied to my current work in the academy.

Simply put, mindful teaching is being in the moment in the classroom. Attentive to the needs of students and the moment, the mindful teacher actively listens to students and their stories. Those stories are braided with course concepts and content and real world challenges to promote relevant, deep learning. Mindful teaching involves active, compassionate listening to the lived curriculum, referred to as co-text by some, of co-learners in the classroom—students and the teacher. Being in the thick of things is not always easy.

Ideals of being in the thick of things meet the pace and scope of doing that takes place in courses. I will make a confession, I was a mindful teacher for part of my Teaching in a Diverse Society course for pre-service teachers on Tuesday, but I got lost in the content and forgot about the students and their stories in the moment. Having given this interactive lecture dozens of times, I have built in multiple moments to encourage the lived curriculum through group and individual reflection. The case study of meeting a Tibetan woman at an airport worked like a charm. Students were immersed in critical self-reflection and mutual engagement with a “critical friend” (More details— ). Other moments, they reflected on their levels of cultural competency development based on cultural immersion experiences they have had. We were alive with learning.

Then, I lost them—the glazed eyes, yawns, seat shifting, loss of consciousness, a few text messages…. I had lost them in my preoccupation with coverage rather than learning in the moment. My light went out, and so did theirs. I sped ahead to deliver the content—various models of intercultural development and such. I should have paired them to discuss, should have stopped and did yoga again, maybe should have taken another break, or maybe a quiet free write on the question, “What are you learning right now?” Next week I will be more aware of my options to reinvigorate and re-engage learning.

Essence, not coverage. What do we really need to know about the content and their lives? Mindful teachers are human beings in the classroom—the learning is connected, deep, engaging. The fires of learning are stoked with care and the warming glow ignites the heart in education. So I leave you to think about Dave’s and Parker’s question, “Are we human doings or human beings?” Can we get better at being in the thick of things while teaching and doing this everyday work in the academy? I feel I can, we can—and this is quite heartening. In peace, Ed.

Who’s Hiding in Your Teaching Philosophy?

by: Cara Meixner

Please submit your teaching statement.

The above phrase evokes multiple thoughts and emotions.  To some, the mere thought of drafting, writing, and revising a teaching philosophy arouses a state of near panic.  Others may find this act reflective, insight-laden, or – dare I say – exhilarating.  Regardless of how we feel, most of us have endured the exercise of writing some manifestation of a teaching statement or philosophy, be it prosaic or technical, terse or winded, forced or by choice.  In most cases, those who read our statements are not our students – they are colleagues, PAC members, department heads, and prospective employers.  So, how is it that we convey in class what we believe about teaching and learning?

As a social scientist, I have many wonders about the life of a teaching statement – how it takes shape and shifts form in each of our classrooms, how it is acted and played out in the learning environment.  The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ has merit, but my fascination goes deeper when the concept of persona comes to mind.

Personas (“social masks”) are those versions of ourselves that represent or reflect the impressions we wish to make.  All well-adjusted humans don persona – and we often change from one mask to another, with or without full awareness of having done so.  These masks – personally, socially, and culturally constructed – empower us, protect us, provide us with confidence, and make us feel competent.  Consider a colleague who says he is a different person at home from who he is at work.  Literally, we know he is not really a different person!  Rather, different personas dominate different contexts, particularly when we are with others.

Sometimes, the social mask falls flat on its own face.  Other times, we do not realize the persona until someone offers feedback, holding a metaphorical mirror up for us.  The aspiration, of course, is to achieve a transparent persona – a state of being within which our projection of self is the truest self others and we may know.

So, what does this have to do with your teaching philosophy?  Consider these questions: Who are you in your classrooms?  Do your affect, language, style, behavior, and interaction convey what you believe about teaching and learning?  Are there instances within which you wear different persona – for instance, are you the same you in a lecture hall, in a graduate classroom, in office hours, at conferences, and during meetings with your unit head?

Ideally, our persona(s) aligns with and reflects our philosophies.  I have found in my own teaching practice, however, that while my philosophy has wavered only so slightly, the persona– or mask – shifts situationally.  I recall, for instance, one of the first classes I taught; I was 22, working on a master’s degree in counseling.  Often mistaken for a first-year student, I was hyper-cognizant of being misperceived by my undergraduates.   To quell that anxiety, I overcompensated – building a persona that projected “expertise” by hiding irreverently behind the lectern.  I skillfully evaded students’ questions by pumping out content; so intent on being seen by my students as competent, I even dressed differently.  I left each class exhausted.  It took years for me to see that my fatigue was an artifact of the appearance I tried to keep – a persona that conflicted with my core beliefs and values, altogether undermining my teaching philosophy.

A friend of mine, who teaches at another university, shared that she recently ‘divorced’ a well-kept persona – the mask she wore that wanted her students to like her.  “I’m not really a funny person,” she said, “but I kept trying to be.”  As a result, she came across as inauthentic.

This brings me to the tale of a professor I had years ago.  On the first day of class, he lectured vehemently about what he called the egalitarian classroom; he shared that he wanted students to assume leadership of class discussions.  We spent 20 minutes developing norms and rules.  But when students asked big questions, presumably those that called his expertise into question, the professor turned hostile.  Within weeks, the learners, myself included, fell silent and the egalitarian classroom turned autocratic.  Interestingly, several students had the professor the semester prior for a different course.  We can only hope that the mask he wore in that particular class was closest to his true self – he was relaxed, engaged the students as peers, and fostered the very environment that he had idealized.

Having taught dozens of courses since the one described above, I have worked vigilantly to be the same “Cara” in the classroom as the “Cara” I am in my office, at home, and with friends.  This takes considerable patience, requires formative feedback from students and trusted colleagues, and necessitates daily reflection.  This also means offering my students permission to call me by my first name.  “Dr. Meixner” – as wonderful and powerful as it sounds – is a persona I no longer need to hide behind.

Disciplinary Beauty

by: Carol Hurney

Recently one of my closest friends described one of her dreams to me.  In this dream, my friend found herself in a large dining room, rustic yet stunningly beautiful.  Although it was unclear why she was in this dining room, she was clear that this space was beautiful and in stark contrast to the surrounding forest, which was ugly and meant to keep the beautiful dining room protected and allow only certain visitors, such as herself, entrance.  The group she was travelling with knew they had to traverse the ugly portion of the forest to enter the beautiful dining room and so that is how my friend found herself amidst such beauty.  Most people were ignorant of this wonderful room because they would have never imagined such a place could exist in this area of the forest.   And as is often the case, my friend’s dream ended there, no more insight into the meaning behind the images of the ugly forest and beautiful dining room.

This dream fascinated me on many levels.  First, when my friend described the beautiful dining room, I immediately formed my own mental image of a beautiful dining room.  I didn’t ask her if my image was the same as hers, as it didn’t really matter.  I understand beauty, so I didn’t need her to clarify.  I also didn’t challenge her image of the ugly forest.  Somehow I know something is beautiful, just as I also know something is ugly.   But how do I know this?  How do any of us know beauty when we see it?  More importantly, how do we navigate through the ugly areas of the forest to find the hidden, spectacular wonders?  During the 2011 May Symposium, Ken Bain challenged us to deliver a promising syllabus to our students and to design learning experiences that foster deep learning.  Ultimately, he challenged us to recognize the beautiful questions in our discipline and foster learning that allows students to navigate the forest to find and appreciate the beauty in disciplinary thinking and ways of knowing.  Sounds easy, right?

I spent some time during the past year trying to tease apart and explore the hidden, beautiful parts of our academic disciplines, the parts we often find fascinating and thought provoking but our students find confusing and difficult.  Decoding how trained academics think about their disciplines has been an interesting journey into many familiar and unfamiliar forests – statistical reasoning, math teaching methods, art history, and chemistry.  Each journey into these academic forests was filled with wondrous ideas and spectacular views.  All of my academic guides carefully navigated me through the ugly portions of the forest and then each guide sparkled when we arrived at his or her beautiful dining room.  They thought they had easily and successfully navigated me to the beautiful, spectacular, and challenging ideas of their discipline and seemed surprised that I was often lost or confused.  Clearly I was paying attention to them and following their instructions, so how could I have missed the beautiful ideas and concepts of their disciplines?  The answer was simple – my mental model of beauty in their academic disciplines was not the same as their mental model.  My academic guides assumed I would recognize the beauty in their disciplinary way of thinking and knowing, but I needed them to challenge my mental image of beauty in his or her discipline.  The same holds true for your students.  They understand beauty – but they don’t understand disciplinary beauty.  They easily get lost in your disciplinary forests and the ugly areas of the forest may convince them to leave or miss out on the stunning beauty of statistics, art history, or biology.  Challenge the mental models your students have about your discipline, which starts by decoding what disciplinary beauty looks like for you.  Your beautiful dining room will really sparkle when your students join you as you feast on the stunning and challenging ideas of your discipline.



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