Pretending to Be A Student Reminds Me How to Teach

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Every summer, the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas presents the Intensive Institute on the Study of Science Fiction, a two week seminar covering a list of either 25 novels or a selection of short stories, all deemed “important” to the genre. The seminar begins with the early works, the classics, and moves through the Science Fiction Golden Age, all the way through our contemporary era. The instructor, Chris McKitterick, is a published novelist, has studied astronomy, and has also worked as a technical writer for the gaming and tech industries . He knows his technology and his literature, and was, therefore, the perfect person to take over for the founder and former director, SF guru James Gunn. (I will freely admit that I was pretty starstruck when I met Gunn, my intellectual and academic hero, at a casual lunch with some of the students. To my credit, I did not squeal. Not out loud, anyway).

So it was that, in June of 2014, I spent two weeks studying the classics. From War of the Worlds to Consider Phlebas, a group of seven students deconstructed history, debated politics, conducted thought experiments, and examined imaginary (potential) technologies. For over four hours a day, every day, we talked about books. Books we’d loved for years; books we finished reading only on principle; books we’d heard of and had planned to read anyway; books that shattered everything we thought we knew about narrative/philosophy/genre/[fill-in-the-blank]. In a word, it was good.

In another word, it was nostalgic. Remember those grad school classes where everyone showed up, energized by the readings and ready for lively discussion? It was like that. We see it happen in our own classrooms: those days that we talk about later with our colleagues, friends, partners, those in-class activities we hope to remember to repeat to similar success in a future semester. Those days when we remember that the symbiosis of teaching and learning can be exhilarating, that it can feel like truth, that it can change lives…including our own. That’s what I felt during this course, and that’s what I want my students to feel as often as possible.

I had been eyeing this program for several years, but the expense of the travel, particularly the lodging and airfare, put it out of reach. Until I received the second reminder from CTLL about the Presidential Faculty Professional Engagement Award (PFPE). According to the award information, “Funding is designed to support professional development activities for faculty to remain state-of-the-art in their disciplines.” I could argue that teaching SF is “state-of-the-art,” especially when dealing with the so-called “millennials.” Maybe, just maybe, I could do this.

Perhaps you’re not daunted by the application process for faculty or staff awards. Perhaps you don’t suffer from “imposter syndrome,” the symptoms of which usually reach a peak in graduate school, but often linger for years after one has obtained a good position in higher ed. Perhaps you’re that person: self-assured, always successful, never nervous.

I, however, am not.

When I learned of the PFPE, I resisted applying right away. I had all of usual my wimpy excuses at the ready:

  • I’m still the new kid. (I’ve been here since 2006.)
  • I don’t have time to prepare a proposal. (Who does?)
  • Who would write a recommendation for me? (Just ask someone.)
  • Other faculty deserve it more than I do. (Shouldn’t that be the judges’ decision?)

This time, however, my desire to attend an academic geek-fest a professional development seminar managed to out-shout the self-defeating voices in my head, and I gave it a whirl. If I didn’t succeed, I reasoned, I could always consider the process an important learning experience for my career. I was right, too: I’m nearly certain that, if I hadn’t applied this time, future opportunities would grow less appealing, and the reminder emails from CTLL would more quickly vanish into my deleted items folder. I learned to prepare a (small) budget, found the words to articulate my professional goals, and challenged myself to plan for future collaboration and presentation to my colleagues.

Plus: I got to spend nearly two weeks with some very smart SF scholar / teacher talking philosophy, science, religion, and literature. Definitely worth every moment of anxiety and increased workload.

So, my advice is this: if you see an opportunity to reignite your passion for your calling, whether that calling is teaching, like me, or scholarly activity, take it. Not profound or surprising advice, but, sometimes, we all need a little kick in the pants to do what, in the end, we really want to do.

On a final, more practical note: UNG faculty & staff should also attend this presentation: Writing a Successful Faculty Scholar Award Proposal on December 3. It’s easy to be passionate; it’s less easy to find the funds to follow that passion.  (Presented by CTLL)  Be sure to RSVP.

Resources

CTLL Faculty Awards: http://ung.edu/center-teaching-learning-leadership/awards/index.php

Academic Affairs Faculty Awards: http://ung.edu/academic-affairs/faculty-awards/index.php#UNG%20Faculty%20Awards%20&%20Ceremonies

One thought on “Pretending to Be A Student Reminds Me How to Teach

  1. I love your concept of pretending to be a student in order to improve yourself as a teacher. Getting into the mindset of your audience for the purpose of doing your job better is an incredibly useful practice that has application across many different job fields. Our department makes it a point to apply this same tactic by getting into the minds of our customers so we can create a better service for them.

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