By UT professor Joe Jarret*
In his 1976 book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser rhetorically asked, “Who is the elusive creature, the reader?” He then went on to answer his own question by asserting, “The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for his attention.” If you replace the word “reader” with “student,” and show a bit more generosity with the 30 second attention span, I think you’ll find that competing for the attention of students is one of the fundamental challenges of teaching. If there’s anything that teaching instructs teachers in today’s social media-obsessed world, it’s the recognition that competition for the attention of our students is becoming increasingly fierce. One way that I have found that assists me with competing with those distractions that find their way into the classroom is the sharing of personal life experiences—mine and theirs.
Author William Trogden, writing under the nom de plume William Least-Heat Moon, once remarked, “Parlors, fish shacks, diner booths, front stoops, checkout counters—all are classrooms.” I agree. Before I began lecturing full-time for UT’s Political Science Department and working on a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, I was a paperboy, short-order-cook, janitor, soldier (with service overseas), public manager, mediator, arbitrator, and lawyer. The experiences I gained from this hodgepodge of life experiences often find their way into my lectures. By explaining how to, for instance, pick a jury, I can describe for students the pitfalls and pratfalls I experienced as a young lawyer rather than merely describe the process in the abstract.
Where students are concerned, I resist the temptation (during the first day or week of class at least) to inquire as to their majors or career goals. Rather, I have them write down what jobs they held or are holding and what life experiences they carry with them. To presume that young people have nothing to add to a class because of youth and inexperience is a mistake. Often, a student will tackle an ethics conundrum or respond to a certain concept based upon their backgrounds and prior experiences. As Bransford et al. (2000) noted in How People Learn, learning depends on how prior knowledge is incorporated into building new knowledge. As such, I’m convinced that teachers must take into account students’ prior knowledge.
Although most students respond favorably when I regale them with stories of my courtroom battles, they respond equally if not more favorably if I give them the opportunity to share their own personal experiences. Recently, I had one of my more timid undergrads sheepishly mention that the only job she ever had was “flipping burgers.” She presumed that humble experience did not lend itself to the topic at hand. Our topic that day was ethics, so I asked her, “Did you ever observe any of your co-workers behave in a way that gave you pause or made you feel uncomfortable?” She thought for a moment, and then went on to describe a series of aberrant observed behaviors from stealing food or cash from the register to altering time cards. That shared experience consumed the entire 3 hours of class, and led to one of the more dynamic, productive class debates of the semester.
While completing the coursework towards my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy at UT, most if not all of my professors had practical experience as teachers, administrators, and school superintendents. Clearly, they were far better versed in the subject matter than I. However, upon learning that I was a former school board attorney who had drafted and defended school board policy and legislation, my professors exploited this knowledge and encouraged me to share it with my classmates. My colleagues also brought years of experience to the classroom, and their collective experience was likewise embraced by faculty.
In summary, theoretical content is important to impart to students. However, by encouraging students to bring their personal experiences to the classroom, augmented by our own experiences, our ability to win the attention wars increases exponentially.
*Joe Jarret lectures full-time for UT’s Political Science Department and is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from UT. He holds over seven awards in writing, including Author of the Year and an Article of the Year from the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA), publisher of Public Risk Journal.
Are you interested in sharing experiences in your course? For some ideas, consult the TennTLC “Visual Resources Table” for links to ideas on digital stories, social media, storyboarding and other methods. http://tenntlc.utk.edu/using-visuals-and-visual-learning/.
For a discussion about the experience of sharing, see http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/you-got-students-talking-about-their-experiences-now-what/
2. UT students, photo from utk.edu
3. Vilseskogen, “short order cook Miss Bellows Falls Diner, Vermont” (https://www.flickr.com/photos/vilseskogen/3938351244 ).