Years ago I spent time with renowned tattoo artist, Pat Fish while she was creating a Celtic piece that wrapped my friend’s waist in large black swirls. During one of the sessions, she shared how she kept a fresh perspective on her art. Her secret, she told us, was that each year she traveled to Ireland or Scotland to get inspiration for tattoos from ancient landmarks. And each year she got a new tattoo so that she would not forget the pain of the needle on her own skin. Her skin was a testament to her commitment to her craft. “You forget,” she told me, “how the needle feels.” What dedication. Pat Fish is not only committed to learning new things through her travel, but she continually revisits the perspective of her clients.
I wonder today if this element of lifelong learning isn’t essential in any field that serves others in some way. If so, Pat Fish has an exceptional way to remain empathetic to those who choose her to create intricate Celtic patterns on their skin.
Pat Fish came to mind today because I am once again experiencing first hand the frustrations of being a student. I am in my first year of a doctoral program. A blended format doctoral program at a small private university with an excellent reputation in organizational leadership.
There are the basic frustrations I imagine most students experience. Frustrations like reading outdated articles or having an autocratic professor (“you can use regular APA or you can use my APA”). Frustrations like assignment directions that are confusing or grading rubrics that have more procedural value than depth of learning. These frustrations fall along a tedium range. A range I imagine that varies for each student. Surely most students would rather engage with readings that relate to their coursework as well as increase their understanding, advance their research or challenge their thinking. Yet, it seems that many of my classmates aren’t bothered enough to rally.
Which brings me to my new pedagogical Rule #7.
Rule #7 states, when teaching, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. This may be a one of the most significant rules in the evolution of higher education. Things are shifting. My professors are counting on us to go along with the familiar delivery model. They are counting on providing us with what students are used to. Students are used half baked slide shows. Students are used to turning their cell phones off. Students are used to course readings with limited perspectives. Students are used to professors who teach the way their own professors modeled.
Yes, I am generalizing- a lot. However, in conversations with my colleagues at other institutions, there is a shared sense that higher education is slow to change. When faculty members choose to rely on their entire suite of familiar teaching strategies, they engage in an exuberant exercise in trying to stay in one place on a moving sidewalk.
So Pat Fish. A new tattoo each year.
What if to be a truly exceptional professor, one took a course from another professor? Not just sat in a course but actually attended all the sessions, read all the course readings, joined in all the group activities, and completed all the assignments.
For me, this year in my doctoral program has been an eye opener about my own teaching. There are subtle things I do that I have not considered from the student perspective. As thorough as I believe I have been, I find my criticism and frustrations mirroring comments I have read on my course evaluations. While I have always taken course evaluation feedback very seriously, and often make changes to my course based on student response, I have done so with a confidence that I know best how to structure my own course.
Now, I have a renewed urgency. My experience as a student this year has spurred an intensive audit of the course I once considered well designed and thoughtfully balanced. Are my readings ready for an overhaul? Do I present a wide enough variety of perspectives and voices through the course media and readings? Are my grouping techniques adequate for balancing underrepresented students? Are the group roles promoting an unintended bias? Do my grading rubrics assess the product in balanced relation to the procedure?
So Pedagogical Rule # 7 is driving my course audit. I see my course more clearly from the perspective of a student. And having been one so recently, I know better what I would want in relation to presentation material, online organization, group structure, and media and readings.
Pat Fish was right, I had forgotten the feel of the needle.