Classroom Thoughts

Teaching does not happen in a vacuum. The simplified version of a professor’s life is that it is made up of teaching, research, and service. How much time is allocated to each varies but this illustration may help.

The focus of this page is my thoughts about teaching. I would not like to pretend that this random collection of ideas makes up anything as coherent as a teaching philosophy but this page does go far in capturing what I believe about my profession and the environment I strive to create for my students.

What are we doing in the classroom?

First, it is important to point out that the college classroom is nothing like the school classroom. The school is more like a restaurant where you are “offered and served” in order to learn. As with restaurants the reputation depends on happy customers. College is more like a gym, where you are given the opportunity (and instruction) but if you don’t do the work, you won’t get the results. This is a vital difference since what you take away from a college class (or a gym) really depends on you – not the instructor.

So pay attention, take notes, and do the work.


I tend to curse in class. It’s not all the time and its nothing my students haven’t heard before. I do explain in the beginning of term that my language may be colorful and that it is not my intention to offend. I highly recommend Jordan Schneider’s article Why I Curse in Class which speaks about the central role of cursing and dispelling the myths we associate with “bad” language. In particular I was struck by the idea and importance of encouraging, not erasing, personality in the classroom.

I’m encouraging them to find their own voice, to strengthen and develop it. To do that, I have to use my own honest voice, and mine happens to include a lot of words you can’t say on network television. If I have to hold back, they will, too. If I can take risks and speak my mind, so will they.

The profanity is not the point but we must be careful to find the ideas being expressed and not be overly concerned with how they are being expressed. Of course presentation matters, but it should not be used as a gatekeeper to invalidate interesting ideas.


The way in which we learn to think deeply is to face new ideas and challenge old assumptions. This means that the classroom should be a space where everyone feels comfortable to express their views (please see the inclusivity policy) You get to (and should) question authority and test ideas. But “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Please read the excellent No, you’re not entitled to your opinion where Patrick Stokes explores the difference between opinions and facts, and why we seem to be confused.

From safe to brave classroom

A safe classroom (please see the inclusivity policy) allows other opinions to be expressed. But as we have seen to often in online ‘debates’ expressing opinions does not necessarily seem to be enough for growth and learning. Much too often people stick to their guns and express their opinions without taking in the critiques or opposing views. The point of academia is to be prepared to leave your existing ideas when new facts prove them wrong. Its not easy but it is brave. We need to listen actively (and interpret generously), especially when people say things that are difficult to hear. Find ways to challenge others with respect and care and be open to challenging your own points of view. Work hard not to be defensive if people challenge what you say or the impact of your words.


Digital Devices in Classroom

TL;DR Laptops and other devices distracting. Writing with pencil better for memory. Results are easily seen in grades.

On the important question of technology in the classroom… Should we not allow laptops, phones and other devices? Science says your’e better off using a pencil. Read Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away or The Case Against Laptops in the Classroom or even Shirky’s Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.

The point is that we can all too easily be distracted by our technology. Even when you use your technology for notes they are less useful and harder to recall than physical note taking. More importantly if you are distracted by technology you are not participating in class. You are not listening to the arguments and therefore not able to question or discuss them.

I get that there are always moments when we need to check out, or are waiting for an important text but if this is your default then you are not going to do well in college.


Being the ‘Professor’?

In Sweden, where we have done away with titles, I never asked to be addressed as professor. It wouldn’t have worked either. Here I do. In part is the culture, but in part its because by maintaining the title I am ensuring the authority of all professors not just me. If I was to ignore this, then other professors would appear to be insecure. And there are enough attempts to undermine the authority of junior faculty as it is. The text Do You Make Them Call You ‘Professor’? by Carrie Preston makes some good points:

But I do clarify upfront how I want to be addressed: Professor Preston, please. No lessons taught me to be more comfortable claiming my expertise and authority. By refusing to do so, I was obscuring the very real operations of power in the classroom, including the ritual of grades.

Titles are a another weird aspect of academia. We have doctor, Phd, adjunct, lecturer, professor (assistant, associate and full). Most of your instructors have spent a long time doing deep research to earn their Phd. This makes them doctors and gives them the right to teach at a university level. I spent six years researching and writing my thesis, which gave me the ability to apply to teach at universities. If you are lucky you can be hired as a tenure track assistant professor, which means you are on the longest trial employment ever. If you are good at teaching, service, and research you will be promoted to associate professor. If not you will have to leave.

The adjunct is an abused position in academia. They are equally good at everything a professor needs to have but they have not been able to land a tenure track job. Adjuncts are the mistreated gig economy workers of academia. Many have Phd’s and are excellent teachers

In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 23.7 percent of faculty members at institutions across the country were tenured, and 10.2 percent were on a tenure track. These numbers pale in comparison to the 66.1 percent of faculty members not part of the tenure track system.

The adjunct system was not intended to be this way but has become a form of academic abuse along with the rise of the university as profit machine. You should read The Sad Death Of An Adjunct Professor Sparks A Labor Debate. Lecturers tend to have better conditions but are not tenure track.

Don’t be part of the problem. Be respectful of the knowledge of others. Call them dr or professor unless they explicitly tell you to call them anything else.


Reading: Must. Read. More.

You know how it work: if you want to be buff (or even healthy) you need to put in the work. Build muscle? Do the reps. Be better at sports? Practice. Be better academically? Read. Shortcuts do not work. Reading is a slow labor intense process that requires attention. One way of focusing is asking at EVERY paragraph: What did the writer mean? Rephrase this as a question and write that next to the paragraph.

Academic texts can be a bit overwhelming. Be calm. And check out How to (seriously) read a scientific paper by Elisabeth PainMar.

I especially get overwhelmed if it’s not in my subfield, if it’s long, and if it’s full of technical jargon. When this happens, I break it down into chunks and will read it over the course of a few days, if possible. For really difficult papers, it also helps to sit down and work through it with a colleague. – Shanahan

And How to Read a Scientific Paper by Adam Ruben

Most importantly, if I didn’t understand a word in a sentence, I forbade myself from proceeding to the next sentence until I looked it up in a textbook and then reread the sentence until it made sense.

I specifically remember this happening with the word “exogenous.” Somehow I had always glossed over this word, as though it was probably unimportant to its sentence. Wrong.


What is College for?

The University of Bologna was formed around 1180 which predates the unification of Italy by 700  years. Oxford and Cambridge showed up in 1200 and 1209, Sweden didn’t get its first university until Uppsala was established in 1477, and Harvard was not founded until 1636 – which is still earlier than the country of Italy. All this is to say that we have been doing “university” for an awful long time and therefore it is unsurprising that we have a whole bunch of strange rituals and customs. But thats not what this is about.

There are many reasons we offer education as a public service, for example:  the need to have an educated workforce, the need to have an educated electorate, and people deserve access to knowledge. But the needs of society, politics, economy, and individuals shift and change along with society. What we understand to be educated changes depending on the needs and desires of society.

Prior to the middle ages, nobility was more likely to prioritize sword fighting and other martial skills over literacy.

We begin in the monasteries, where the written Latin word (Latinitas) was cultivated in the early centuries of the Middle Ages, and continue to the noble courts of the High and Late Middle Ages. The attitudes of nobility towards reading changed during the first half of the Middle Ages: the ability to read and write was among the skills civilised knights and damsels should possess. Their interests led to the creation of new literary genres: courts were the birthplace of courtly literature (hence the name). (The art of reading in the Middle Ages)

This literacy spread with the expansion of books (printing made books cheaper) and the use of writing in local languages. Enlightenment brought with it the ideas of the leaned individual, the rise of industrialization needed a stable, basically educated workforce. In retrospect these shifts seem obvious but there are some peculiar exceptions. The importance and prevalence of teaching Latin (and also ancient Greek), but this can be partially explained as a social gatekeeper. In the UK, it was not until the 1960s, that universities gradually began to abandon Latin as an entry requirement for Medicine and Law degrees. 

The biggest shift in recent time has, of course, been the spread of internet and our mobile access to it. What should we teach people who have near constant access to infinite amounts of information. Do you need to know what the longest river in USA is? Or the capital city of Burkina Faso? The answer is of course complicated. There is a set of knowledge that we expect people to have – but what that knowledge covers can vary between groups. Generally speaking, the level of common knowledge has shifted thanks to the internet. You may not be expected to know a fact but you are probably expected to know how to find it.

Knowing the answers to the two questions is maybe important but knowing why they are the answers is what we mean by deep/analytical thinking. College is here for the latter.

Notes for more

What college is expected to be (from the elites to everyone)

Liberal arts (make you into whole person – whole person)

Skills learnt on the job but capacity for thinking honed in these spaces

Deep thinking

Recession of 2008. If I am going to have dept then what carreet are you prepareing me for to pay this off. Hard shift by UNI to skill based (neoliberal shift) University as another commodity

Cost of higher ed. High pressure environment

Knowledge is power (Bacon) but power for whom (Foucault)

Consumer model for eduction

Liberal arts devalued in public discourse but companies want deeper thinkers(ie liberal arts school)

In a post industrial era with an industrial model DOES NOT WORK

cognition depends on? What we need to know that the industrial model fails to teach

Away from high stakes testing, away from standardization, away from broadcast

Hierarchical setting but should not be exploitative! Armor up (no hands go up, low participation) or open up (discussions)

High stakes! Nobody likes to fail, you have been trained to pass the test (not learn) but failing is part of learning.