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Despite my university title, I’ve always thought that someone, one day, will discover that I’m not a “real” academic. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that when it comes to teaching, I’m by no means a traditionalist.
Over the years, colleagues within my institution and beyond have accused me of everything from dumbing down what I teach to being more of a talk show host than an academic. They insist that students read the “sociological classics” – and if one in five fails as a result of this approach, so be it.
But last month, I found a way to tell these critics to, in Bart Simpson’s words, eat my shorts.
At a ceremony in Canberra, I was surprised to be named the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year Award.
While the Prime Minister’s Award is a significant public recognition, even more important is what it represents – that trying new and unconventional teaching methods is not just a nice idea but a real way to engage students and help them learn.
Trying something new
I spend much time reflecting on how to get the best out of my students – even if it means dancing at the front of the class. And I have found that unconventional teaching methods work far better for first-year students than many old techniques.
The safe option is to put together a bunch of PowerPoint slides with quotes from thinkers like David Harvey, David Held and Jean Baudrillard. These are inspiring and insightful authors that have a lot to offer.
But while I find these authors interesting, they can also be dense, and for first-year students their discussions and examples can seem remote and often irrelevant.
As a lecturer, it is hard work to keep the students engaged, and the success rates are dependent on the cohort, time of semester, the assessment requirements of other subjects and even bad weather.
Chaos in the classroom
Five years ago, I began trying a radically different way to teach the concepts of chaos theory.
Instead of just talking, I start the lecture with a number of body percussion exercises – 400 students loudly clap and strike their bodies in time with each other. I explain how much like a 4/4 beat followed by a ¾ beat, certain processes in our globalised world are actually in-sync, and can be relatively easy to identify.
The next stage is to then perform a “flash mob” with about 100 students at the front of the lecture theatre.
After briefing the students on what to do, they come to the front of the lecture and perform an exercise that requires them to stand equally distant from two people within the “mob” – with those two people having no idea they are about to be mimicked.
The effect is amazing: as one person moves, the various people that are mimicking this individual also move, and the waves of action spread through the group as the ripple effect multiples.
It is a demonstration of how we are connected in a ways that we often do not see, how such relations are often not obvious and are impossible to foresee.
Once this knowledge has been established, it is possible to introduce the work of theorists like Harvey, Held and Baudrillard in ways that the student cohort can relate to.
The bigger picture
It is a teaching method that can be used when discussing everything from gender and race, to technology, class and social movements.
Though some detail is sacrificed, what is more important is that the concepts are grasped.
In this way, I may not delve into the intricacies of Marx or Hegel, but instead find ways to show how class and class relations are real, alive, shape both our agency and structures in society, and will affect our life chances.
My position is that those who want to study the detail will have ample chance later in their degree; rather, the aim is to ensure that the majority of the 400 to 1,000 students in the cohort will see concepts such as “class” as something existing around them and relevant to their lives.
The response has been overwhelming from the students.
In addition to their feedback and unsolicited emails, I have found their results as well as attendance improve as I have introduced such practices.
In fact, for the first-year subject I have come to focus much of my work on, I have seen the fail and absent fail rate drop from over 20% to below 5%.
Just as important has been the response from colleagues who teach my former students in second, third and fourth year.
These colleagues have informed me that they know when a student has been through my introductory subject because, while the students may not recall all the details, they have always grasped the concepts.
Pillars of knowledge
My teaching approach is made up of three pillars, which I vary depending on the student cohort.
My starting point is to see students as engaged in their community, rather than seeing them as being in deficit (or citizens in waiting).
Secondly, I work to decipher the world with living theories. I begin with examples and case studies that are both relevant and contemporary before I introduce theory.
Finally, I encourage students to see themselves as agents of change on an ongoing journey.
Using case studies to highlight the power relationships and structures around us, I advance a sense of active agency amongst the students, highlighting how they can make change happen.
Once, a student told me that I was an “academic pirate”. His explanation was that at a university established to serve the lower-socioeconomic population of greater western Sydney, rather than the wealthier students of a sandstone institution, I had adapted my language and approach to work for the students.
He said he considered me a pirate because “pirates were resourceful… they learnt to use their environment.”
The critics of my approach remain unconvinced. But as long as the students that I have been lucky enough to teach continue succeed in their various endeavours, then such criticisms can be kept in perspective.
James Arvanitakis is a lecturer in cultural and social analysis at University of Western Sydney.
This article was first published at The Conversation.