Experimenting on Students: A Thought about Playfulness and Personal Connection in Teaching

I recently recorded a couple of lectures in my role as “Distinguished Lecturer in Romantic Theology” in the innovative Doctor in Theology and Ministry at Northwind Seminary. A heady title! I wanted to take the role seriously and do something with a bit of heft to it. More than that, though, Northwind has a collection of great minds and motivated souls gathered together to deepen their understanding of faith and practice in a peculiar, challenging, and experimental way. I had two chances–just over an hour of contact time–to leave something for these students. What would I say?

Trusting in the curriculum designed by the core faculty–creative and engaging Inkling scholars in their own particular veins–and trusting that the students would do the hard work required to dialogue with the material, I decided that I didn’t want to simply impart some information to them. Even cool, nerdy, deep-in-the-trenches information wasn’t enough for this unique opportunity.

So I decided to design my two lectures as arguments.

For a lecture on Tolkien’s theology, I did something I have never done before, which was to take a good scholarly work and use it to set up what I perceive to be a weakness in the field. Using a poorly written book or shoddy scholarship is no good for students of intellectual depth, and leaves any listener with knowledge about a resource they will never bother with again. But in taking a strong thinker and asking one critical question about what is missing in their analysis, I had a chance to provide a resource for students, model methods of research and discovery, and make an argument that is perhaps the only unique contribution I have to make in Tolkien studies. I think the result was pretty cool! (You can see some of the data I used here, by Sparrow Alden. Plus, I used Emily Austin’s Inklings art to design the slides, making it visually beautiful too)

My second lecture was a kind of gutsy argument about C.S. Lewis, offering a way to read him that reorients our entire perspective on his life and writings but that does not negate what has come before. It is the topic of my upcoming book and I had fun making it a stronger, fighting-words argument for smart students who have the capacity to assess it, challenge it, and ultimately receive it or reconfigure it for their own purposes.

I believe I was more successful with the Tolkien “Theology of the Small” lecture than the one on C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology–not because of the core material, but because I should have finished the Lewis lecture with a key question: Do you see how profoundly this argument changes our spiritual posture as faithful pilgrims and how deeply it can shape our contexts for spiritual practice? No doubt the students–each of them leaders, teachers, ministers, or scholars–can make the link themselves, but the step is important enough that I may take the time to rerecord the lecture. We’ll see.

While I was variously successful with these two lectures, I think they are both good examples of scholarship at play. But they are also examples of the ways I have been trying to be more playful as a teacher in the classroom. In the midst of remote emergency education, Zoom weariness, administrative overload, continuing career dislocation, and the ongoing weight of the students’ stories that I feel privileged to carry, I have decided to strike at the heart of my work and challenge myself to rethink assignment and course design so that I can create the best possible experience for my students.

Choosing to become more playful with my course design means experimenting on my students–students who are already feeling dislocated and beleaguered in the world of education, vocation, and culture today. I don’t take such experiments lightly. It is also a risk for me as a teacher. To play any game means taking the chance to lose. And being playful requires a dynamic creativity and adaptive quality that is hard to conjure up in the middle of a difficult term, for me anyway.

Fortunately, I am not always alone in trying to think creatively. Beyond a pretty strong digital network of teachers–many of them nomadic scholars like myself–I often get to work in great teams.

Here at the University of Prince Edward Island, the religious studies department was an early innovator in online and blended education. When asked to teach “Japanese Religion and Culture” for winter 2020, I knew I had the space to play with the class. I made it a hybrid class, with half of the lectures pre-recorded online, followed by in-class conversations in a round-table session. I was able to give strong frameworks for thoughts about Japanese religion, history, and society, and the students were able to bring in the element of pop culture. The combined dynamic was brilliant as students took turns leading discussions about various aspects of Japan’s super cool pop culture scene–going far beyond what my knowledge and experience could provide. And when pandemic lockdown measures interrupted the semester, our move to fully online teaching was comparatively smooth. Moreover, as an inherently international group of students, they found encouragement in their interests and received support during the difficult period that followed.

Perhaps the most playful part of my teaching at UPEI is our “Inquiry Studies” course. With a dynamic teaching and design team, we set out to create a foundation-year course that brought in the writing and critical thinking skills of our successful English 101 course with an inquiry-directed curriculum. In this course, students are given the framework and tools to design large parts of their skillset development as they navigate their way through a project-based class. We are always adapting this evergreen course, but the coolest aspect of the course for me is the blandly named “Log Project,” where students ask a question and then design both their approach to answering the question–i.e., the modes and methods of research–and create a unique way to share what they learn with their fellow students. The list of mind-blowing, moving, and motivational projects that these often eager and sometimes timorous students create is far too large to even highlight a few here.

Honestly, with 15 years of teaching foundation-year courses for students, I have never seen a course so effective at preparing students for their educational journeys or for giving them broad-based skills for life and work. I am honoured to be a part of it–and always thinking about how to make it better next year!

One of the more unusual and effective teaching teams I am a part of is the Signum University faculty. Partly, this is the nature of the school: a story-centred, nerd-friendly, online, accessible, MA program in imaginative literature, philology, and linguistics. Something of the mythopoeic and speculative nature of the books and films we study finds its way into our teaching and learning community, where the lines between faculty, staff, student, and supporter are intentionally transgressed. Always growing and learning, Signum is built to encourage creative approaches to teaching–even when many of our approaches in the literature classes are pretty traditional: read great books, lecture on the material, discuss with smart students. But, let’s be honest, this school is pretty great. I mean, they launched a scholarly study of Star Wars on May the 4th!

Within this team, I am allowed opportunities to play as a teacher–including recent chances to extend the classroom to the digital sphere and invite students in, such as open classes on “The Anatomy of the Vampire Myth” and  “C.S. Lewis, Gender, and The Four Loves,” and “An Open Class on Narnia and Friendship with Jason Lepojärvi and Diana Pavlac Glyer.”

At Signum, I am also constantly learning new ways of assessing students. As I was dissatisfied with our oral exam, a teaching colleague gave me the idea of doing a creative assignment instead, where students propose a large-scale project like a video game, TV serial, film project, novel or graphic novel, tabletop game or RPG, inner-city curriculum, long-form narrative poem in alliterative verse–really any kind of project that will allow their creative (or subcreative) juices to flow in a way that integrates the course material. Then the students design a treatment of the project, present it to the class (with discussion), and reflect on their journey of creation and discovery in the context of the class. This project complements our research-based term paper and close-reading short assignment well. More than that, it gets rid of the unsatisfying final exam and gives me an unusually good amount of indirect and direct feedback about the course.

Intriguingly, my dissatisfaction and early experiments with the oral exam at Signum led me to redesign my course on the Fiction and Science Fiction of C.S. Lewis at the King’s College (New York City). As an interdisciplinary class with a heavily theological focus in an English department, I was not satisfied with my first course design. I am always adapting this course. Feeling the material to be a bit thin, I produced pre-recorded video lectures on the material, which I then paired with online written discussion. Feeling distant from the students, I then created four small group video conversation sessions in the semester (first and last weeks discussing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Till We Have Faces, as well as a discussion on Narnia and the Ransom Cycle).

It was in the assignments, though, where I was not fully satisfied. Two of the assignments are great. For one, the students write their own Screwtapian letter, providing a point of cultural critique or spiritual thoughtfulness. At another point, students are assigned to small groups and set about to create an 8th Narnian chronicle, including project artwork, character and plot development, sample chapters (or sample dialogue for a screen or stage version, sample pages for a graphic novel, etc.), and other aspects of a treatment.

Both of these projects hit a number of markers for the class and are pretty great to mark. Increasingly as I taught, though, I have had artists and writers in the class, and I wanted to reshape our early-class close-reading short paper. As I understand the genre well, I decided to make the early-term project a “Narnian blog post,” where they have to triangulate their own experience with a close reading from Narnia and some aspect of spiritual life. The project works well for helping students see how their lives can be part of the “data set” of research, and gives them a chance to distinguish different kinds of academic writing. This short, personally implicated and evidence-based project allows me to see writing strengths and weaknesses early in the term, so I use the opportunity to provide extensive feedback.

And then there was the final exam: this heavy-writing, full-semester, 3-hour monstrosity that students had to sit through and I had to mark. As this is a spring course, both profs and students are just “done” by the 2nd week of May. Moreover, this final did not do what I needed it to do, which was to help students pace a heavy reading list (13 books) in a long semester and then provide them an opportunity to show that they have read deeply and thought in integrative ways about the material.

So I ditched it. I designed a series of weekly short-answer quizzes that are quick to write and quick to mark, mostly about checking that students are reading and watching lectures. And I replaced the final exam with a video one-on-one meeting with the students. In these meetings, students begin the discussion by choosing from a variety of prompts. These prompts approach the material from different angles: social, cultural, theological, literary, linguistic, historical, etc. Following a short student presentation, I ask some follow-up questions, moving through the curriculum. Though I openly say this in the assignment description, students are surprised to discover that I am looking for ways that they can identify skills they have gained and discoveries they have made during the semester and look for ways to apply these to their studies, their family lives, and their friendships, as well as the work they do in vocational development, scholarship, ministry, and social justice activism. This 20-30-minute discussion is really one of the most valuable things I do as a teacher and, if testimonials are any indication, meaningful to many of my students.

And so on. I still keep reconfiguring the final paper for the Lewis course at TKC, but my real challenge there is that the reading list is pretty large with 13 novels: the seven Narnian chronicles, then The Great Divorce and Screwtape, then the interplanetary trilogy, followed by Till We Have Faces. For lit students or SciFi/dystopia lovers, this schedule works pretty well. Starting with Narnia allows me to inculcate some text-reading and discovery tools early for the nostalgic Lewis lovers who have tumbled into the class from the various programs at King’s. But if Out of the Silent is outside of your sympathy, and if Perelandra is just plain weird, then That Hideous Strength will come close to doing you in. So I am still considering ways to make the material connect even more effectively.

I have not been able to experiment in all the ways I would like. A week before lockdowns in March 2020, I was playing Lego with my writing students around a big table, talking about “building” a paper. I’d like to make that a sharper lesson someday. And I realize it has been a while since I’ve had my ukulele or Thomas the Tank Engine set in class. I would like one day to design a whole course for university students based on my Kindergarten-teacher wife’s approach to a play-based curriculum. I would also like to truly design a rhizomatic course like teaching guru Dave Cormier (@davecormier) has proposed. It’s all about finding the right time and place.

Fortunately, the schools I work with let me experiment on students. This has meant student-centred course design at Maritime Christian College, a rethinking of my religion course for students in Egypt, and being responsive to student goals in supervising MA theses at Signum University. Out of all of this experimentation in the last handful of year, there are certain principles that I have become essential to the way that I intend to teach in this coming decade:

  • I have learned that it is essential to provide early-term writing feedback–a lot of teacherly critiques and peer feedback to small assignments early in the semester that I then build into the rubric for future assignments
  • Never again will I assign projects that students hate to write and teachers hate to mark–why would I ever do this again?
  • It is critical to define learning outcomes and communicate those to students; when students understand why they are doing a project, they have an opportunity to invest in that project in ways that are meaningful to them
  • One of the beautiful things I have discovered is to extend the curriculum beyond the classroom, helping students make links to their other studies, to their work and home lives, to the shaping of their dreams and their play in digital worlds
  • Cardinal rule: If it doesn’t work, change it–and change it as soon as you can
  • Listen to student feedback; it’s true that students are the least qualified to speak to learning from an educator’s perspective, but if you are looking for meaningful change, they can teach you what you need to know
  • Find out what innovative approaches your colleagues are experimenting with; an extremely successful approach I have taken to become better as a teacher is simply asking a friend or co-teacher, “How do you do this?” or “What’s something awesome you are doing?”

Behind all of this experimentation and baby-step innovation is what I confessed was the key to my teaching strategy: caring for students. Being open to shaping and reshaping the curriculum is an extension of that care for students. It means not just being someone who constantly redesigns their teaching spaces; it means that as a teacher I am constantly being redesigned myself, challenged to see things from a new angle and move outside my most comfortable ways of working. However, seeing students connect to the material in new ways and grow in their own spaces is pretty cool, and I am thankful that I can work at schools that understand my inherent weaknesses and still give me space to excel.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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7 Responses to Experimenting on Students: A Thought about Playfulness and Personal Connection in Teaching

  1. joviator says:

    Do all the students write the 8th Narnia book about Pluto, or just the smart-aleck in the back row?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re living my dream!… (oh to be a Professor!). You have very fortunate students to have such an innovative and student-focused Prof! I’m completely down with eliminating final exams… for me it was education by fear and I dumped it all out of my brain when the exam was over so I could dump the fear as well. That’s no way to educate hungry and willing minds!

    Like

    • Hello! I haven’t talked to you in a long time. I do long to have that tenure or full-time spot so I have stability, but I do get to be more playful than most profs in traditional settings.
      “Dumping,” yes, let’s avoid that!

      Like

  3. This is awesome and very helpful for rethinking the one online course that I’ve delivered.

    Like

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