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Faculty reflection: A large-class instructor asks students to look around

Large-class teaching presents many challenges, which I learned firsthand last term when I taught a 170-student introduction to environmental humanities course, ENVS 203. The course is part of the core sequence required for all Environmental Studies and Environmental Science majors, but also fulfills the Arts and Letters Group Requirement, which means a significant percentage of non-majors take it. It’s organized into two weekly “lectures” and separate discussion sections led by GTFs. I’m used to teaching courses of 40-50 students with no separate sections or assistants – “large” by some measures, but quite different from what I was facing in the fall. Among many concerns, one in particular stood out as I planned the course: how to keep so many students engaged with the course content in a manner that felt authentic and meaningful to them.

Much of the discussion about student engagement in large courses centers on what happens inside the classroom, particularly with how to move beyond the traditional lecture and create a more interactive learning environment. Use of personal response systems, like “clickers,” for example, has become a popular strategy for increasing student involvement in class. Another strategy gaining prominence is “flipping” the classroom – putting lectures online and using the classroom for application exercises such as problem-solving or team-based learning. Working at TEP, I’m well aware of these approaches and stories of their success. But in preparing for my own large class, I focused on a different strategy for going “beyond the lecture” to stimulate student involvement: I attempted to boost students’ engagement outside the classroom.

There is nothing new, of course, in assigning students work outside of class. Yet I wanted students to do more than read or study or write about what they were reading or studying. So one of the learning objectives I developed for students was to “contemplate values and actions and reflect on how they shape and are shaped by their interactions with the world.” For me, this meant having students use ideas presented and discussed in class to interact with their environment and reflect on their experience. Indeed, ultimately my students are challenged to think through the ways cultural assumptions and perceptions inform environmental values, perspectives and practices—and how these in turn shape structures of power and privilege.

For one assignment, students engaged in a Classroom-Community Connections exercise in which they worked for three hours at one of three community gardens, then wrote a short reflection about the experience and its relation to a particular course theme. For another assignment, they ventured around campus until a particular object or place struck their attention for some reason; they then had to describe it in detail, explain why it provoked their attention, and reflect on the very experience of perceiving it closely. In addition, they had to create a list of 15 “natural” objects that they submitted online, which I then fed into a Wordle (all 6,000 words) to depict visually in class what “nature” means on campus, through the eyes of the students (hint: trees…). Yet another assignment had students visit the Development of the Sciences mural in the west stairwell of Knight Library and write about themes of nature represented in the mural, critique it from the perspective of one of the authors we’d read in class, and share their own thoughts about potentially controversial public art.

To cap this assignment sequence that asked students to consciously and critically engage with UO as an environment, I had students read William Cronon’s short article on liberal education, and on the last day of class I presented a commentary on Howard Nemerov’s poem “To David, About His Education.” They then had to write a reflection about their experience of a liberal education at UO, comment on how they envisioned the future, and explain the most interesting thing they learned in the course during the term. The last question in particular yielded a wealth of insight about their learning experience and the value of various components of the course – so much so that I plan to include such an exercise in all future courses I teach.

The course included such traditional assessments as a midterm and final exam, and a thesis-based short essay about the novel we read. An outside observer visiting lecture on a given day would likely witness nothing new, except perhaps for a few theatrics specific to my teaching style. Still, overall, the course did offer students a few, not-so-run-of-the-mill opportunities to engage course content “beyond the lecture.” If student evaluations mean anything, the course appears to have been a positive learning experience for most students. As one student commented, “I love to see people, especially professors, empowering students and opening our eyes to the greater world outside a car, house, job, etc. It is far too easy to get sucked into the ‘college = job = money = happiness’ vacuum of society.” Personally, I consider that suggestive evidence of a learning objective met.

Author’s note: A recent article in the UO CAS magazine, Cascade, features the environmental humanities at UO, and a short companion piece notes some of the “thought-provoking cross-cultural literature” that students explored in my course.

—Jason Schreiner is a faulty consultant in the Teaching Effectiveness Program and an instructor in the Environmental Studies Program. Meet him Friday, 1/31 at “The Lecture: 20 Years Later.”

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