Enabling Effective Content Creators in the Space-Time Continuum

I had the immense privilege of spending April 2-5 with a dozen Macaulay students, mostly seniors, as they presented the fruits of their labors at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) at the University of Kentucky. Aside from an unfortunately eventful flight back (*ahem*), the trip was a smashing success; every single Macaulay student in attendance presented top-quality research, got great feedback from other attendees, and was an enthusiastic and respectful conference participant. (I wrote up each day’s events on the Macaulay thesis colloquium course blog; you can read all of my recaps over there.) One of the real pleasures of traveling with this particular group of students was bearing witness to two things: 1) their intellectual diversity (of our own small and merry band, we had conference attendees conducting research in biochemistry, civil engineering, economics, film and media, literature, mathematics, neuroscience, psychology, political science, and science education) and 2) their quick and tight group bond. Macaulay’s distributed, multi-campus structure means that our students can spend all four years just beginning to get to know their compatriots; many of our NCUR attendees had a friend or classmate or two going, but no one knew everyone else in advance of our travel.

One of the things I spent much of our trip thinking about was how to push more students to become content creators of the sort I saw at the conference. We know that sustained learning only begins to happen when students do more than simply absorb and regurgitate information; comprehension is only the beginning of an education, never its endpoint. The kinds of projects our students brought to NCUR all fell into the higher orders of Bloom’s taxonomy, in both the cognitive and affective domains.

So how do we scale that up? How do we make that progression through the analytical, valuing, and evaluative modes a stronger path for more people? There are any number of researchers who devote their entire careers to permutations of that question, but one thing I’m really interested in is in how we use time–both as part of the in-classroom experience and as part of large-scale academic project management (be that for a senior thesis or a doctoral dissertation). There are three things I’ve been doing with time fairly regularly in my teaching this semester:

First, I’ve been using time as an explicit framework through which the class collaboratively refines the day’s pedagogical goals. It’s common for me to say, “OK, everyone, we have X minutes left. We can do Activity A, Activity B, or Activity C. Which one is the best use of the remainder of our time together today?” This generally launches a discussion–one that can include all people in the classroom, regardless of role. If the instructional technologist assigned to my course says, “I think Activity B would be the most fruitful use of my visit today,” the class can quickly and productively turn to Activity B, and I can pick up on Activities A and C the next time the course meets without our (wonderful!) technologist. Or if the majority of students think Activity A would be most helpful for their own learning, then that is what we do. But stopping the flow of class to draw attention to time, and asking students to reflect on their learning that day, instantly kicks the level of awareness up a notch for the whole group–a feeling which then often translates into better work, regardless of what activity we choose.

Second, I’ve let “class time” become “work time.” One of the (not-so-)secret pedagogical goals of something like a senior thesis or capstone experience is to begin to guide young adults into the design, creation, and launch of larger-scale projects–a skill that will be invaluable whether their next move is further into the academy or out into the working world. So lately we’ve been taking an hour or two here and there to turn our attention to our semester-long projects, spending half the class immersed in individual work before coming back together as a group to learn the day’s lesson. This allows students the necessary freedom to see those larger projects to fruition, but it allows for those test flights to happen in a supportive (and familiar!) classroom environment. It also allows us to structure that time, if need be, without demanding or necessitating structure–there’s room for me to say “I think X, Y, and Z would be great goals for everyone to work towards during this work session,” but there’s no need to override individual decision-making on the part of the student. This also seems to lead to an expanded sense of time–“I only have an hour to do X” very quickly becomes “look, I have a whole hour to do X.” That freedom to explore–especially coupled with self-reflection or assessment at the end of “work time,” which we’ve been doing on our class blog of late–grows the student’s investment in their own projects. In the end, “work time” allows my students to guide themselves towards higher orders of learning individually, while still encouraging the entire group to move along together.

Lastly, when I’m pushing my students to transition towards the higher levels of Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, in particular, I use time limits as a means of ramping up the intensity of the experience. This works both during class time itself, and with deadlines for semester-long projects. When we decided to go to NCUR, for example, the abstract submission process and the event itself were calendar deadlines that forced each student to work through their research ideas more efficiently. And when we complete a one-day digital humanities project in class–a regular feature of this semester’s course–the end of the class session also serves as the definitive end of what could otherwise too easily be a “forever” project. In this last case, I think seeing and recognizing a particular time as an arbitrary-yet-immovable deadline guides students towards achieving higher-order thinking more quickly–but not because they all naturally progress in their learning and can speed up that progess on command. Rather, it’s the deadline coupled with the concreteness of the assignment that steers them quickly through the comprehensive and analytical phases of learning, and lends itself towards more time spent in synthesis and evaluation. A compressed sense of time, in this case, allows for fast decision-making without letting anyone go down too many rabbit trails. Given that incentive to stay on task, my students seem (when observed) to begin to feel like a certain path towards higher-order thinking is “inevitable”–even though they are making their own choices throughout the entirety of the assignment. In the face of a clearly delineated endpoint, they use that feeling of inevitability to pull themselves along and through. This works so well, you can see it in action even when everyone in the classroom is in agreement that time is an arbitrary construct.

All of this is a long-winded way of musing on the photographs above–some of which don’t meet my usual standards, because photographing people is hard, y’all. It takes much more effort from me to get a clean shot of someone talking than it does for me to photograph a landscape. I said to someone on this trip that when people show up in my landscape photography, I more or less treat them as objects–a person is like a tree, or a building, or some other stationary piece of the scene. That works a lot of the time–because the person is rarely the central focus of the shot, at least for me. Here, because I was the only NCUR attendee to see every single Macaulay poster or presentation, I have a number of photographs that largely serve a documentary focus.