Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Guest Post - Dr. Janet Johnson, UT Dallas Professor of Media and Communications Studies

After a recent telephone conversation, I have asked my high school friend, Dr. Janet Johnson to write a guest post for my blog about her insight and experiences in the college classroom. Janet blogs over at the Cyber Rhetoric blog about everything from writing her dissertation to getting her PhD, she writes about her experiences as a college professor as well as her family life and her many adventurous travels. Additionally, Janet and I have committed to a photo a day project this year--which we are both excited about and enjoying immensely. Janet also keeps the this site for her students, which contains information about the courses that she teaches. I want to thank Janet for coming through with this awesome post and for always being there for me when I need her!!

Thank you Theresa for inviting me to be your first guest blogger. My name is Janet Johnson and I am a Clinical Assistant Professor at The University of Texas at Dallas. I teach communication classes in media and new media.

My goal in today’s post is to give insight into what one college professor believes are important skills to learn before reaching the college classroom.

The classes that I teach are core curriculum advanced writing. I try to create an interactive classroom experience. I am not a lecturer by nature, in fact, I find lecturing unnatural. I like discussion. One class that I teach is called Computer-Mediated Communications. I love this class because we can discuss different issues in new media communications. At first, students look at me when I ask THEM questions. Yes, I ask my students for information. Supposedly, I am the first professor in history to do this. I want my students involved because who wants to sit there and regurgitate information on a test. I am lucky I teach advanced writing because my students get to write a 10 page research critical analysis paper over the topic of their choice—What? I let my students CHOOSE their topic? Yes, I do. And, it proves to be a struggle for most students because I am not TELLING them what to write about. I do give them boundaries, but I allow them to write about whatever subject they are passionate about within new media communications.

College students are lacking critical thinking skills. When I first started teaching as a graduate teaching assistant in 2002 while getting my masters in journalism, I found students were more resourceful.  Fast forward 8 years later and I can hardly get students to WANT to write OR go to the bricks and mortar library. Students think Google or Wikipedia (in which I fail any student who cites this as a source) are THE only research tools. Students could care less about delving deep into a subject.

So, what skills are important for homeschooled students to learn before heading off to college? In my opinion they are: critical thinking, free thinking, independent study habits, applying concepts and theories, and learning to take an exam. I think critical thinking is lacking in our educational system—even in the college classroom. I teach upperclassmen and most students tell me they have not written a paper since their freshman composition classes--this boggles my mind.  Most professors do not like grading papers the way I grade papers. I use a rubric that breaks down their paper: Thesis, Structure, Use of Evidence, Logic and Argumentation and Grammar/Mechanics. If a student can write a great thesis statement and use evidence throughout their paper to back up their claims logically, please send your students my way. Research skills are practically nil in college students.

I know one of the skills I listed is how to take an exam. This reason alone is why you home school your children so they don’t have to take standardized tests. But, I’m discussing a subject’s comprehensive exam with multiple choice, short answers and essay questions. One professor friend at school discussed concepts from the class’s textbook and the ONLY thing she did was give a new similar example on the exam and asked students to apply the concept/theory. We found out that in other classes they were used to using their book and/or having the SAME examples on the test. Students were not used to applying what they knew, they were used to regurgitating memorized material. They had no idea how to comprehend a new example (which was close to the original one) and apply that concept or theory without the memorized prompt. The students also struggled with the essay questions. To me this is sad.

Students in college, in my opinion, feel entitled these days. I have had several instances where students email me after final grades and ask for a grade higher because they think they DESERVE it. They expected an A, and I am the one, the professor, who did not deliver that grade to them. My motto the beginning of a semester is, I do not GIVE grades, the student EARNS grades. This concept is foreign to students.

I once had a homeschooled student in my web writing class class. He was years ahead of the other students in the class. He created a political blog that you would think a seasoned journalist wrote. He was a critical thinker and a free thinker. As I look back on Theresa’s past posts and as I scanned through her friend’s blogs, I see home school students are learning these skills. You are creating students who hunger for knowledge and are curious. When students are curious about a subject—guess what?—they are great critical thinkers. You have children who are not afraid to discuss a subject, question and to participate in learning. These children are not passive learners, but active learners.

I will admit, I was skeptical of the concept of home schooling. Most people are. But, when I read Theresa’s blog, I realized these are the skills that are lacking in my classroom. Theresa is teaching skills that I wish my students embraced.

My advice to homeschoolers is to keep learning fun and interactive. I always try to get the students who are shy to talk, but these students are not used to interactive learning. They would rather sit through a lecture than have a discussion or work on a project hands on in class. I always tell my class that I hope everyone walks out of here knowing each other’s names. I pride myself on other professors walking by my classroom asking me, “Wow, what were you all laughing about?”

One of my pedagogy philosophies is that of a social constructionist. Ken Bain in What the Best College Teachers do explains “Knowledge is constructed, not received.” (26).
Bain continues,
…we construct our sense of reality out of all the sensory input we receive, and that process begins in the crib. We see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, and we begin connecting all those sensations in our brains to build patterns of the way we think the world works. So our brains are both storage and processing units. At some point, we begin using those existing patterns to understand new sensory input. By the time we reach college, we have thousands of mental models, or schemas, that we use to try to understand the lectures we hear, the texts we read, and so forth. (26).

To do all that, I get them to discuss those mental models or schemas that are preexisting and connect them to the material. I want students to see that they are constructs of their own knowledge and they have to construct their own reality.

In my classroom we do not only learn from what we read or what I discuss, but we all learn from each other because my belief is that everyone in my classroom can contribute to our classroom’s collective knowledge. I know I learn from my students all the time. And, confident professors will admit so.

I hope all homeschoolers will continue to allow knowledge to be constructed because the end result are students who are critical thinkers, free thinkers, communicators, and reliable/accountable college students who are thirsty for knowledge and who continue to be curious.