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Home Videos on Teaching DePaul Faculty Oral HistoriesRobert Rotenberg
DePaul Faculty Oral Histories: Robert Rotenberg

Browse the videos below to hear Robert Rotenberg, Professor and Chair in the Department of Anthropology, reflect on the stages that professors often pass through in their teaching careers (using his own early experiences as examples).


Biggs' Stages of Teaching Experience: Stage I—What the Student Is

Featured Faculty Member: Robert Rotenberg of the Department of Anthropology.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

As a New Zealand researcher by the name of Biggs was able to demonstrate back in the 1980s, there are at least two and sometimes three stages that college professors go through as they become more experienced in the classroom.

I want to talk a little bit about these, because I think that the more awareness we have of these stages, the easier it is for us to make progress. Biggs believed, and I think he's right, that these stages can't be skipped, that it really comes out of our experience with our students, rather than some intellectual activity or desire on our parts to progress rapidly. So in characterizing these stages, I'm highlighting something which we need to be aware of, even if there probably isn't a whole heck of a lot that we can do about it. The benefit, I think, is that it gives us a target to shoot for, or landmarks that help us understand where we are in the process. The first stage Biggs characterizes as “what the student is.” We go into the classroom and we make certain assumptions about the level of preparation of our students, or their basic skills, or whether they did the reading, how well they understand the reading, what kind of writers they are. And we begin to calibrate our conversation with them in the classroom around these considerations. In other words, we attempt to teach to the students. The problem, of course, with this is that we can't know any of these things. We make assumptions about them. There's something that I have been calling, for a number of years now, “The Professorial Fallacy,” the notion for example that students are sliding increasingly backwards in their preparation for college work. I think it's very natural to have this impression, in part, because at DePaul, with our 10-week schedule, we, like Sisyphus, push the rock up the hill for 10 weeks, manage to balance it on the top of the peak of student learning, that is, only to have it roll back down on top of us in the six weeks or two weeks between the terms. So that when we reenter the classroom the second term, the students are right back where they started again. Well, if you do this cycle over and over and over again, the frustration of not seeing progress in the students leads to the very reasonable conclusion that the students are getting dumber. In fact, these are probably the best prepared students in the history of American academic institutions. It's just that they may not be able to meet the particular criteria that the instructor has when they enter the classroom. They will get there. In any event, a focus on what the students are, what their skills are, what they're capable of is a stage of college teaching which can be quite pernicious. It can be a trap, like I said, because we don't really have any data on what that preparation is. This means that the instructor feels that he or she must be the center of the classroom, that the students are not capable of learning on their own. And so, we reproduce the 19th century classroom, in which the literacy gap between the students and the professor was so huge that the professor literally had to provide a reading of the material for the students during every class. By the way, that reading was called a lecture, from the Latin, lectura, “to read out loud,” that is. And even if we don't lecture, even if we dress up our teacher-centered classroom as a discussion classroom, or if we even go so far as to believe that, in some way or another, we're striving for a seminar, the very assumption that we are doing so because we think we know who the students are academically is a limitation on what we can accomplish.




My Teaching Firsts: Sex and Violence

Featured Faculty Member: Robert Rotenberg of the Department of Anthropology.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

I remember when I first started, I was addicted to textbooks and I would always look around for absolutely the most intriguing, color photo filled textbook that I could find, with glossaries.

This was before there were CDs and websites that you could go to. But the more bells and whistles in the textbook, the better, as far as I was concerned. And then, I would try to figure out how to entertain the students with the lectures that I would give off of the material. I'd had a fairly extensive opportunity to read widely in the disciplinary literature when I was in grad school, so I had lots of stories that I could tell. But I knew that I could always grab their attention if I discussed issues of violence and issues of sexuality, that those were the two themes that would grab their attention. And I would get outstanding teaching evaluations at the end of the term, because they just found what I had to say so entertaining. It was a bit of a challenge because some of the material in introductory anthropology courses can be a bit dry. But I would nevertheless try to find something in every class meeting that was either about intense violence and quite sublime, or an oddity of the variety of human sexuality, which was, as opposed, quite beautiful, so the opposite of the sublime. This was in the early '80s; when I first came to DePaul, I was the only anthropologist in the Sociology Department. My colleagues, I think, were a bit confused as to why I was getting such good teaching evaluations. They thought that perhaps I was giving everybody A's, which I wasn't. I wasn't even giving everybody B's, but they thought something had to be amiss. And it was all about my assumption that these students weren't prepared to enjoy the material or to learn from the material on their own, that they needed me to popularize the material, to literally bring it down to a late adolescent level where everything was about intense feeling, in order to encourage their motivation to learn the material. In hindsight, I think that it was probably the most insulting approach that I could possibly have taken to the classroom. But I wasn't willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that there was enough maturity there that they could enjoy a good discussion about kinship, without having to get salacious on issues of incest. That was my stage one experience.




Biggs' Stages of Teaching Experience: Stage II—What the Teacher Does

Featured Faculty Member: Robert Rotenberg of the Department of Anthropology.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Biggs' second stage he calls “what the teacher does.”

I suppose that after a period of time, instructors who are focused on who the students are, and what they can and cannot do, become increasingly frustrated, and start looking around for techniques that they can employ, which are going to make it easier for these theoretically underdeveloped students to progress faster and have more academic success. And so, they begin to explore techniques. They visit the teaching, learning and assessment center, they go to the Teaching Commons, they look for ways of employing desire to learn. All in an effort to try to level the playing field to tease out the academic strengths of the students who are in front of them. These teachers ask themselves the question, if only I was a better teacher, the students would be more successful. Well, that turns out to be a trap, too. But, instructors who employ interesting techniques get attention. They tend to be the ones who win the teaching awards. And the reason why they do is because their classrooms are so different than the instructors who are making assumptions only about who the students are, not what the instructor is doing. Their classrooms are so different from those stage one instructors that they stand out. Students appreciate it, because there is novelty there. They don't know when they get into the classroom exactly what to expect, and are pleasantly surprised by having something new to do. Newness in itself can convince students that there is sufficient attention being paid to them, that they must in turn pay more attention to the instructor. Well, this classroom dynamic is probably sufficiently common in universities, for us to point to it and say, “That's a kind of ideal that we want to reach.” It is still, however, a teacher-centered classroom. The success in setting the learning goals is entirely in the hands of the instructor's techniques.




My Teaching Firsts: Experimenting with New Techniques

Featured Faculty Member: Robert Rotenberg of the Department of Anthropology.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Stage two, I used to fool around as often as I could with techniques.

I would bring films in; this was again in the '80s when it wasn't terribly uncommon to do so, lots of people were doing it, but I would choose particularly short films, or I would interrupt the films. I would have students do outside-of-the-class field experiments. Again, these days, that's quite common, but early on, it wasn't. And as a result, I got a reputation for organizing a classroom that was different than the other classrooms. I'm not trying to say that my colleagues weren't trying to experiment with similar sorts of techniques, but not all of us were. And I was among that group that was experimenting. I think that the big change came in 1989 when some of my colleagues in SNL invited me to a workshop on student-centered learning. And in particular, something which at that time we called problem-based learning, which had become very successful in the 1980s in the professional schools, but less so in colleges of arts and science. There were business schools and medical schools, graduate education of course, that were basing their entire curriculum around a single problem a year. I remember that, I believe it was a business school in Cincinnati, their entire first year curriculum was based on the question, “Should T. Boone Pickens,” who I guess is a still living entrepreneur, “buy Mobile Oil?” And in order to solve this problem, the entire first year cohort of that graduate school had to learn all of the basic skills of an MBA in order to write a white paper for this entrepreneur to then use as his guidance in answering this question. And I was fascinated by this idea because the question itself implied a kind of real-world outcome. Could you actually give this guy information he didn't already have, based on a basic education in the commercial sciences, in accounting and marketing and management, finance and so on? And I decided to try it. So at that time, in Sociology (I was still in Sociology), I had just started directing the International Studies Program, but it was by no means at a level of maturity yet. I think we only had about 15 students that year, this was 1989 or so. But I did have an opportunity to teach a Special Problems for both undergraduates and graduates in International Studies and Sociology. Anthropology didn't exist at all at that time, outside of my classes. And I decided that I would try a similar sort of thing. So at that time, internationally there was a big conflict in Central Asia. There was a district of Azerbaijan known as Nagorno-Karabakh, “the Black Garden.” And there were two sets of people who were in conflict over who was going to control this politically, Armenia or Azerbaijan. Both of these countries that are now independent were at that time part of the Soviet Union. And so, I decided to set 15 students, as many as registered, on the problem of advising the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on whether they should give Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azerbaijanis or to the Armenians, and so, resolve the conflict. They looked at me like I was out of my mind. Where? Who? What? And I said, “Yeah, that's your task. You've got 10 weeks, figure it out.” I was amazed with what they came up with. It blew my mind. They made phone calls, they found people who are Armenian, they found people who are Azeri, they read the Soviet Constitution to figure out what exactly the Central Committee could or could not do. They learned the geography, they learned the economy, they learned the political lay of the land, and they came up with a report, in which they said that the Soviet Union was about to dissolve over the constitutional issues that underlay the conflict of this particular region. And they were right, and they were way ahead of where the public was. I'm sure that there were experts in the State department who knew this for years. But the students amazed themselves at how much they could learn in 10 weeks. Well, I was hooked. I mean, from that point on, I just kept looking for more and more opportunities to give students this chance.




Biggs' Stages of Teaching Experience: Stage III—Demonstrated Understanding

Featured Faculty Member: Robert Rotenberg of the Department of Anthropology.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

What makes the third stage different is that the emphasis is entirely on the student.

It is the learning or the understanding of the material that the students demonstrate that becomes the focus of the classroom organization. The instructor's role is to create an environment in which that learning or understanding can be demonstrated. The reason this is so difficult is because it's counterintuitive. It is outside of the realm of academic culture, as initially experience in graduate school and the first few years of the profession, that the disciplinary knowledge of the instructor is discounted in an effective classroom. It's almost as if there is more value in withholding what you know than in providing what you know, and this is counterintuitive. Now, why should that be so? In order for the students to demonstrate their learning and their understanding, there has to be space in an abstract sense in that classroom for the activity to occur. Also, the process that the instructor has to go through is reversed. Instead of talking about what books should they read, how should we discuss this book, how should they demonstrate that they read the book and understand the points that we discussed? Instead, you begin with “what kinds of changes in students' academic behavior should I expect if they have dealt with this question?” We call those learning outcomes, and they need to be specified in great detail. We don't learn how to do that. It's not something that happens in grad school. I'm still not sure how to do it, but I at least try. Then, we move to the second stage, which is once we've described what these outcomes might look like, we then try to figure out, we then have to figure out, what does it take for us to let the students demonstrate these outcomes? Where do they have to be, what kinds of materials do they have to have at their disposal? Is it done in writing, is it done in action, is it done in speech, how is it accomplished? We call these assessment tasks, and they're different than evaluation. We're not judging the quality of the understanding or the learning, merely that understanding and learning has taken place. We'll get around to evaluation once we know that, in fact, it's happened. We do that the other way around in stages one or two, where we're all hot to judge quality without really spending the time to figure out what has happened, what has really changed.