Ideas That Work In College Teaching
Edited by Robert L. Badger
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008)
This collection of essays has many very appealing features. One is that all the contributors teach at the State University of New York at Potsdam. They know each other, they collaborate in an interdisciplinary program; the editor, geology professor Robert Badger, undoubtedly has a good idea of who really teaches well among his colleagues, and has invited those people to contribute.
Another is that the ratio of theory to praxis is very low. The title describes the contents well—what works. There is a chapter on using Springsteen songs to teach politics, a chapter on service-learning in sociology, a chapter by Badger himself on writing assignments in geology, a chapter on group projects in computer science. They’re practical, they’re unpretentious, they come with a sort of personal guarantee—tried and found effective.
Both these qualities seem related to a third, which is the nature of SUNY Potsdam. It is a state-supported liberal arts campus. Many students are from the area, upstate New York, and from families without a history of college attendance. Potsdam, from the account given here, is not highly selective. The professors who have contributed these chapters are, for the most part, genuinely determined to meet the students where they are, the approach Paolo Freire recommends and contributor Peg Wesselink endorses.
There is an occasional tone of condescension—one contributor magnanimously concedes that some of his students are “salvageable”—but generally the demographic information is used to explain why teachers chose the approach to learning that they did. The title of the first chapter indicates the ethos of this book: “There Is No Such Thing as a Dumb Student, But How Can I Help Them Do Better?” It is about teaching mathematics. Its author, Joel Foisy, has useful things to say about testing and assessment; interacting with students; quick activities; and cross-curricular connections, all of which he relates to the project of teaching mathematics to liberal arts students who are not majors.
William Herman, a psychology professor (whose chapter is about the use of active engagement in science fiction to assist in the learning of psychology) contributes an eloquent “educational credo” which reads in part:
Unfortunately, much of what passes for teaching and learning is the memorization of factual information of questionable importance (at least to many learners and even some teachers) and the regurgitation of such facts on paper. In stark contrast, I am much more interested in teaching that promotes personal learning among students and results in conceptual change and the application of ideas, theories, and research findings. Learners and teachers must openly share why certain ideas are more useful than others.
Faculty members—no matter where or what they teach—who find these words resonant, who want to teach better so their students can learn more deeply, should get a copy of this book.