Exposing Yourself to Students: You are a Source!
I like to start the semester with a popular ice-breaker activity—two truths and a tall tale. During my first TA orientation, the TA director (Randall McClure) used this activity to get us talking. From that activity I learned that Dr. McClure had in fact been involved in a snowball fight with the members of U2, and slept (unknowingly) next to a dead body for several hours (while camping out for U2 tickets). So I adopted it.
Sometimes I reveal various jobs I’ve had (roadie for a country band, collections, UPS package handler, etc), and sometimes I reveal people that they might know, whom I have met or know. It’s a fun little activity. Then I make my students create their own and share with one another. I encourage them to come up with less obvious character-revealing truths and to avoid things like “I have two cats”. Then they share their lists with one another and have to introduce someone to the class including the most interesting thing they learned about them. This is particularly useful because I have a horrible memory for names, but if I can link their name to something interesting… then I have a better chance to remember it.
But, aside from the amusing information and the opportunity to improve the odds that I’ll remember some of their names, this activity is also an opportunity to talk about critical thinking. Why did they select the “tall tale” that they did? Unless they’ve had me before, or did some research before signing up for my class, they know very little about me. What logic did they use to deduce that this one, among the three, was the false one? We generally have a quick discussion about it… before we plunge into the meat of the “first day” activities.
Before we part ways, I give them their first assignment: for tomorrow come to class with a list of (at least) 10 things about me; be sure to cite your sources.
Generally this results in some confusion. “What? How do we do that?” I assure them there is stuff out there, and send them on their way.
They come in the following day and tentatively get out their lists. I stand in the front of the classroom, unsure of what they might have found. And I ask them, “So, what did you find?” At first, I only get a few things. Then they seem to gain confidence and the factoids fly from their mouths. I scribble everything down on the board, trying to refrain from editorializing or rejecting facts. I also ask them where they found the information, so we have some accountability. When the stream begins to ebb, I cut it off and we look at the list together. Some have found my webpage; others have found my Facebook page; some have found random information from ratemyprofessor.com or a website that is maintained by the Boy Scout troop I was part of. Some are just not correct. For instance, I am not a character played by Sean Connery in 1959. I am not a horror fiction writer. I am not the subject of a song, for which there is a ringtone available online. And, I am not any of the variations of my name: Michael McBride, Michael MacBridge, Michael McBridge, Micheal MacBride, Micheal McBride, etc.
As with the discussion about the two truths and a tall tale activity, we talk about how they decided that the information they found was accurate. What kind of logic did they use to determine that the Wikipedia page was indeed created by me and included my accurate age down to the day?
This activity serves a number of functions. Like the two truths and a tall tale exercise, it also provides an excellent discussion about critical thinking. Also, because I require students to submit a Works Cited page with sources for their information, I get a sense of where they are with documentation and citation.
After using this pair of exercises together a couple of times, I realized there is an additional benefit to them. Students get to know me. They learn that instructors are people, too. An important lesson in and of itself. We’re not just automatons that spew forth lectures, randomly generate activities, and process their papers, spitting out grades. By breaking the ice, students are more willing to approach me. They ask questions, they joke, and sometimes they even challenge me and the points I’ve made.
In the process, they also learn that I have biases and limits to my knowledge. In short, they learn that I am a source. Just like their textbook, that has a limited scope and biases, each instructor also is merely human. This might be a scary thing for some instructors. If you’re in front of the class, you’re supposed to be all-knowing, and powerful, and all that. But, I really enjoy the challenge. It is no fun when I talk to myself during lectures and answer my own questions. I would rather engage in conversation, and so rather than waiting for this to happen, I push my agenda early to help establish that kind of environment.
By getting students to think more widely about sources, I start seeing a better variety of sources used in their work. They start using personal interviews more, actually going to a primary source and talking to a police officer about crime on campus or to an instructor to ask about the topic their paper is on. I see students writing surveys and questionnaires to gather their own data, to see how it compares to nationwide studies on a similar topic. Of course this kind of research offers its own problems to an instructor. How do I verify this information? I suppose I could contact the police officer or instructor and verify that they did in fact have a conversation with the student. But somehow that feels dirty. Plus, in every instance where this has happened so far, the student has always been hesitant about pursuing that kind of research and has talked with me about how to go about it, and they’ve been very invested in the topic. If they made up the data, they did so very convincingly.
By engaging their sources more carefully, they start to realize why certain sources are more effective for certain kinds of information. If they conduct a personal interview then they see a face behind the information and know they need to cite it, instead of just seeing Wikipedia or some other faceless website.
In performing these activities, I realize I am making a number of assumptions about students:
- Students lack good critical thinking skills about sources.
- Students don’t realize all the potential sources around them; they often go for the “easiest” and not necessarily the “best” source.
- They would like to know more about their instructor and form a better rapport with them.
- They would benefit from learning about sources early on, and expectations for the class.
- Their documentation skills could use work.
Perhaps I’m off the mark on some of these assumptions, but in doing this activity now for the last eight years, I’ve found it to be particularly successful with 100 and 200 level classes. What starts out as a seemingly random activity to collect information about their instructor turns into something that hopefully they’ll carry with them beyond the walls of this one class: think critically of sources, everything is a source, instructors are merely human, and be proactive in your education.
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