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Allowing Room for (Possible) Failure: A Favorite Teaching Moment

Ah, so many transformative moments in teaching … But here’s a recent one. In a project-based, interdisciplinary class I just co-taught at Stanford, students in English, Comparative Literature and Computer Science worked in teams on projects developing connected or social media forms of reading, studying, and enjoying literature in the digital age. The format was influenced by design thinking, which asks you to ideate, launch, test, iterate, and try again to make a product and a user experience better. This was both exhilarating and sometimes frustrating for the students, who had to let go of some grand ideas and initial perfectionism to go through the cycle of the course.

My own teachable moment came when I read a student’s final learning reflection. She included a graph that documented all her ups and downs in the course, with a vertical axis for “Affect” (plus above and minus below the line, you get the picture), and a horizontal axis for “Time” (spent in the course—ten weeks, sicne we’re on the quarter system). It was a true up and down, with high Highs at points of emotional engagement and actual success with project milestones, and really low Lows at points where things did not go as expected or hoped. The narrative described those in great detail. The amazing thing about the graph, though, was that it ended on the highest High right at the end—when it was time for the final project report and the final learning reflection the student was writing at that very moment. She was able to look back and understood, to her amazement, how far she had come, and what she and her team had, in fact, been able to accomplish in ten weeks—an astonishing amount. Although there had been frustrations and low points, she realized that those had been crucial as touchstones and turning points in her own and her team’s learning, which would never had happened this way, had they not experienced the difficult phases and worked hard to come out of them.

That’s when it hit me, too. I’m a caring, involved teacher and want my students to succeed, of course, and so I tend not to make enough room for failure and growth that comes from stumbling and trying again. I had read Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset and believe in the importance of failure as an opportunity for learning, and yet, I had not truly applied this knowledge to my own classes thus far. It is hard to stand back calmly and watch while students figure things out for themselves. It is hard to watch them be frustrated by the process. And yet … what rewards. This student (and others in the course) was able to own her learning in such a meaningful, deep, wonderful way.

I’m still processing the lesson I learned this past quarter, but I have a feeling it will be one of the most important ones I’ve learned in my career. Failure is an option, and it is a beginning rather than an end. We need to design for that.

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Defining Teaching Excellence

The best teachers are the ones who inspire us to be better than we thought we could be, to work harder than we thought we wanted to, and to be more curious about the subject going out of a class than we originally were going into it. For me as a teacher of the Humanities at Stanford, and especially of 19th-century and modernist literature and feminist and LGBTQ history and culture, teaching these subjects is a personal and a professional calling with deep significance: at least partially on my particular effort rides whether or not my students can discover, understand, and feel invested in historical cultural developments that I believe are deeply relevant for the world we live in today. This is a great responsibility, but it is also a great joy and goal that keeps me on my toes. Being flexible and open enough to learning how to adapt and improve one’s pedagogy, truly listening to students and taking things from where they are to lead them on and out beyond themselves, no matter the circumstances, are hallmarks of the best teachers I have ever had. They were brilliant, but most importantly, they cared, and I knew they did.

In my experience, the most exciting moments in the classroom happen when students discover new insights and directions that excite them because they matter to them. Guiding students toward and through such moments of generating curiosity, proficiency, confidence, and sometimes sheer delight is my most challenging and rewarding goal. To make possible such independent and inductive learning, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how my syllabi, teaching methods, strategies, and styles can help make these insights happen organically, arising from the texts and contexts we are studying, including interdisciplinary relationships among the arts and sociopolitical developments. I also think about added experiences with guest speakers, field trips, etc. outside the classroom, which often provide unique perspectives that can really enrich the students’ learning experience. Along with the literary canon, I try to introduce students to unfamiliar works and give them the confidence and skills to approach them. I strive to create a learning or research mentoring experience that supports and challenges the way students closely read and write about ideas and concepts on their own, while simultaneously nurturing them with honest, intense quality feedback and putting my expertise and knowledge at the students’ disposal as much as possible. My goal is to find the right balance between highest expectations for the academic quality of students’ work, and the right care and support to make it happen: to make it possible for them to dare to ask new questions while studying old thoughts, pursue and discover both old and new answers, experience some inevitable setbacks in their exploration and recover to move on with more confidence, and ideally to become lifelong learners in the process. For me, excellent teaching highlights that knowledge is never static but requires renewed creativity and constant revision for each individual and for each generation.

The constant renewal of how we, in turn, think about and strive for teaching excellence is perhaps more important now than ever, as we have entered a new era of digital pedagogy. I see exciting new opportunities for making the Humanities centrally relevant to society again and have deliberately taken up this challenge by experimenting with digital pedagogy in my classes. The most recent example is a new interdisciplinary project course that I developed and co-taught with my colleague and husband, Sebastian Thrun, for Comparative Literature, English, and Computer Science students all in one classroom. It brought the spirit of Silicon Valley to the Humanities in an experimental, playful way. I am also giving talks about my pedagogical approaches and experiences at conferences and other universities, as well as blogging about assignments (such as my public literary role-plays on Twitter). Teaching excellence in the classroom is one thing, but teaching excellence in blended and online environments is another one. It poses new challenges and affordances that have to be tested with confidence, critical thinking, and creativity. It takes a community of dedicated teachers to develop a new culture of teaching excellence for the digital age.

Research and teaching really go hand in hand for me, too: when I get excited about my research, I think about how I can share it with students, and when I talk with students about it, I often take their questions and ideas back to my research. Teaching is never a one-way street, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. My students have taught me a great deal and challenged me in ways that have been complex, wonderful, and often unpredictable. I may be the official teacher in our classroom, but I am also a co-learner, and an excellent teaching and learning experience is something that we are privileged to create together.

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