Teaching Reflections: Dr. Victoria Hightower
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts in which teaching award winners will share their experiences, philosophies, and techniques.
Dr. Victoria Hightower is an associate professor of history and a recipient of the 2019 Teaching Excellence Award.
In my undergraduate experience, my professors drilled content: the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and whys of a given historical scenario. They assumed that skills, both hard (reading, writing, researching) and soft (argumentation, critical thinking, synthesis), would be absorbed through breathing the exalted air of the classroom — or else were simply too abstract for undergraduates to grasp. Upon arriving at North Georgia in 2011, I recognized that my pedagogy was underdeveloped and began experimenting with new techniques that helped my students practice the hard and soft skills introduced in history courses. I have learned that there are a few nonnegotiable rules to successful teaching, and while I am far from an expert, these are the ideas that guide me as I develop my own pedagogy.
First, pedagogy must be authentic. I am, somewhat paradoxically, a caring and blunt person. In the classroom, I listen to the students as they chat back and forth. If there is a moment that I can explain university policies or thinking to them, I do it. In this way, I also emphasize the importance of empathy and critical thinking, rather than encouraging them to evaluate events simply from an emotional perspective. We talk about how I am assessing them and why I am doing it. I use transparency in the classroom as a way to show my care for them and their grades. I tell them how assignments connect and build towards tests, and how, during lecture, I am covering material to help them understand the mechanisms behind the content. I also use a lot of humor in the classroom, which is an accepted pedagogy following R.L. Garner’s “Humor in Pedagogy: How Ha-Ha can Lead to Aha!” Humor helps me reinforce ideas and give the students a mental break, again demonstrating that I care about their learning. My caring personality, however, does not replace the requirement for honest assessment or standards. When students do not meet my expectations, I can be very direct. While some shrink away from this, my caring personality is usually enough to keep the communication lines open. I have tried different classroom personas on throughout the years, but I am never as effective as when I am being authentically myself.
Second, good pedagogy is responsive. About three years ago, I became frustrated. My students regularly missed the mark I had set for them. I felt personally offended and I could not initially understand why they struggled. I scaffolded everything. I reinforced ideas regularly. I modeled strong responses. What was wrong? One day, in an offhand conversation, I found my answer. I had asked a student to identify the thesis of a book and he could not. He then turned to me exasperated and asked: “How do you read this?” When we went through the text together, I realized we were not reading in the same way: I read systematically, he read more holistically. He became distracted by the evidence and then attempted to use it to create an argument of his own without being conscious of this process or of the author’s original intent. So, when I asked the broader questions about application, analysis, and synthesis, helping him climb the rungs of Bloom’s taxonomy, he had literally no basis on which to build. He had the higher-level skills because he was engaging in a level of analysis, but became frustrated with my questions because he was unaware of a key step in the process. With this small epiphany, I started incorporating argumentation practice into my courses alongside reading-based homework assignments, such as outlines and thematic analyses, that were aimed at helping students distinguish argument from evidence. The result of my responsiveness was that my students became more skilled at identifying and producing strong, evidence-based arguments.
The final rule I have developed for myself is that pedagogy should be intentional. This one was hard won because in trying to achieve intentionality I felt absolutely overwhelmed. I felt like I had to constantly be shifting gears between different pedagogical modalities — visual, aural, kinetic, etc. — and it was stressful. But after Spring 2019 I was absolutely dissatisfied with my pedagogy, which I felt to be incoherent. I began reading, and while the literature I read was useful, it reinforced my fears that I would have to completely change my teaching persona or eliminate my hard-won responsive assignments. But then, I realized quite suddenly that I did not have to adopt everything holistically. If I was selective and intentional and chose ideas that connected to my philosophy, I could improve student outcomes and their experience. I read books like Josè Antonio Bowen’s Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of your College Classroom will Improve Student Learning, which advocates for an intentional use of technology. I read Lendol Calder’s “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” and realized that I should be more intentional in the incorporation of content. This is what was missing! Then, as I read James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Paul Hanstedt’s Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, I realized it was unnecessary to completely overhaul my pedagogy. Using Lang and Handstedt, I realized I could simply change how I began class, when I asked questions, and the types of questions that I posed. My new approach includes more limited assessments — like giving students five minutes to summarize what I said mid-lecture or practice a test element, thereby helping with recall. This allows me to understand whether they see the broader implications of their learning and gives them an opportunity to assess their level of engagement. However, none of these goals can be accomplished without being intentional.
Developing my personal pedagogy took time and experimentation. I am not the best teacher, but I am willing to try almost anything. I learned that by remaining authentic to my personality, responding to students’ issues, and being more intentional in my pedagogy, I could better connect theory to practice and be more effective in my job at UNG.