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Adventures in Pedagogy (Part One)

By Nicky Didicher 

November 24, 2015

The word “adventure” literally means “toward what’s coming,” and the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun form of the word as “chance of danger or loss; risk, jeopardy, peril,” like in “venture capitalism” or “venturing out into the storm.” As a professor who specializes in teaching/pedagogy rather than research, I think of myself as a risk-taker when it comes to what I teach and how I teach. I move towards the future and I make use of happy accidents (these are also meanings of “adventure”!). Rarely content to teach the same texts in the same ways for too long, I experiment with reading lists, with assessment methods, and with in-class activities. More importantly, because I try to do what’s called “learning-centered teaching,” I don’t change things just for the adrenaline rush, but with the goal of helping students learn more, learn better, and learn for their future.

Every semester I want to make at least one significantly large change in the courses I teach, and I’d like to share with you two changes I’ve made to my courses in the Fall of 2015. In Engl 103 Introduction to Drama we’re beginning each lecture class with five minutes of mindfulness, and in Engl 387 I’m offering oral marking sessions to students.

The mindfulness sessions were something I was thinking about 1) as the result of a paper I heard at the STLHE conference in Vancouver in June 2015, 2) as a supporter of the Healthy Campus Community who wanted to do more, and 3) because I teach yoga in addition to English literature. In July and August I was auditing a course in medieval French music for professional musicians, and one day during the lunch break I was reading an article about “mindfulness in the academy” (by Paula Gardner and Jill Grose of Brock University). One of my classmates asked what I was reading, and it turned out that back home in California she teaches not only music lessons but also mindfulness! A happy accident, indeed. Her name is Argenta Walther, and she was willing to share some of her course materials with me, which helped me organize my planned weekly sessions into different kinds of mindfulness practices.  

My section of Intro to Drama this term is in Surrey, meeting once a week in a nice room with tables rather than tablet desks and with about fifty students. I told the class on the first day that starting in week two I would be having five-minute mindfulness sessions at the beginning of their two-hour lecture block. Those five minutes were completely optional, and there would be no penalty for coming at 10:35 instead of 10:30 each week. I did ask, however, that people not enter the room during mindfulness. In the first session I mostly explained what mindfulness was—non-judgmental self-awareness and self-examination—and its benefits for mental health, memory, focus, physical health, and social connectedness. Then in each following week I’ve led a short session with a different theme or practice. We’ve focused on breath, on gathering and releasing tension, on compassion for those in our lives who cause us stress, on feeling grateful to our feet for all they do for us, on learning, on joy, on educational goals, and on exam anxiety. So far, they’ve been very well attended, with only one or two people coming each week at 10:35.

In week six I put an anonymous survey into Canvas (SFU’s Learning Management System) to get some feedback on how students were responding to the mindfulness sessions and whether they found them useful. As part of this survey I asked them their reasons for attending, and the top two were curiosity and to learn to de-stress, with “to get the seat I want in class” coming a distant third. Nearly 85% of the thirty-one students who filled in the survey felt they’d learned something valuable, and 90% asked for the sessions to continue. Half the respondents felt that five minutes was just the right amount of time, while 35% would prefer longer—I’ve stayed with the five minutes. The student respondents were slightly more divided when it came to believing that this will help with their learning, with only 65% agreeing. I’m planning to do another survey after our final session, to see how they feel at the end of term and if they have any suggestions for improving this as a teaching and learning tool.

I’m very pleased with how this experiment has gone: I’ve gotten strong positive responses to it from students, it doesn’t take too much class time, and I too feel calmer and more energized when we begin talking about drama! My hope is that they will remember and be able to use this kind of practice to help them get through their university careers with more calmness, more attention, and less stress, and that they will be better learners because of it.     

Nicky teaches a wide range and large number of courses per year; her areas of expertise and interest include eighteenth-century British literature, children’s literature, Chaucer, poetics, and science fiction. Nicky uses blended learning (in-class and on-line) in most of her courses and learning-centered techniques in teaching, assessment, and syllabus choices. Her commitment to pedagogy has also had outlets in being a member of the Senate Committee for University Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines , helping to plan the Teaching & Learning Symposium, and co-leading the Re-Thinking Teaching Coarse Design Workshop.  In 2010 she received the Lesley B. Cormack Award for excellence in teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.