By Doug Ward

A colleague pulled me aside this week and said she wanted my thoughts about something. She seemed apologetic.

She is relatively new to college teaching, having made the switch to academia after a distinguished professional career. Students rave about her. She pushes them to think creatively and to stretch their abilities through hands-on projects. She holds students to high standards, but she is also accessible and serves as a strong mentor. When we talk, I always leave feeling energized and hopeful.

This week, though, she seemed uncharacteristically down, and she wanted my advice.

“How do you, a teacher of teachers, feel at the end of the semester?” she asked.

I laughed before offering a brutally honest answer: Mentally and physically exhausted, I said. Morose and filled with self-doubt. I dwell on missed opportunities, worry about what I may have forgotten to teach, and wonder whether I have truly helped students.

She leaned back in her chair and exhaled. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was afraid it was just me.”purplish-red hibiscus

It’s not, I said. Teaching feels like both a sprint and a marathon combined. Each week, we dash toward short-term goals, never fully able to catch our breath as the pace of the semester sweeps us along. I felt much the same way as a student, pouring myself into my studies, gasping toward the finish line, and wondering whether I had made the most of my opportunities.

I learned something then that I continue to draw upon now: Even though I felt exhausted and numb at the end of the semester, I had a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate. Academia, I found, had its own seasonal pace, its own cycle of depletion and rebirth. Every semester, I had a chance to start over.

I try to hold on to that thought at the end of each semester now that I’m a professor. I also remind myself that my class is only one of many that students will take. As I told my colleague this week, none of us can teach students everything. Seeing end-of-the-semester projects with sloppy writing, weak research, haphazard connections and faulty reasoning may seem like failure, but it’s not. Each of us has only a small part in the broader learning of our students. If we have done our jobs right, we have helped students improve their thinking and their maturity, helped them gain confidence in their ability to learn, and provided strategies for helping them learn in the future. The work we do will help them improve on their skills old and new in future classes.

I also remind myself that students are as tired as I am at the end of a semester and probably aren’t doing their best work or their best thinking then, just as I am not doing my best work or my best thinking. The end of the semester is a lesson in humility for all of us.

My main advice to all faculty members is to be kind to yourself at the end of the semester. Take time to reflect: What worked this semester, and why? Most certainly you had some successes. What were they and how can you transfer those successes into other areas? At the same time, what didn’t work? What parts of a course do you need to change? What can you do to improve overall student learning but also learning in smaller components of a class? What activities or assignments can you change to boost students’ confidence but also help them improve on weak skills?

After that reflection, take some time to relax and revive. Yes, you missed some opportunities this semester. We all do. No, students didn’t seem to learn as much as you would have liked. Do they ever? So give yourself a break. Do something that doesn’t require intense thinking. (I personally favor binge-watching “The Walking Dead.”) And remember that rare, magnificent part of academia: Next semester, you get a chance to start over.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

When it comes to seeing the truth, the facts sometimes get in the way.

Audrey Watters makes that argument in an intriguing blog post on the results of the presidential election. During the election, she said, a focus on facts (in the form of data) caused many people to overlook many voters’ willingness to shrug off Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements, conspiracy theories and falsehoods and put him in the White House. Something broader was stirring among the electorate that collections of facts failed to illuminate.

Academics, she argues, fall into that same trap. They drill down on the facts in narrow ways, often missing broader “truths” that take shape as people compile those facts into stories they tell themselves and others. She elaborates on that perspective further in an article about the wild claims of technology companies:

“Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized.”

I bring that up here because as teachers, we must help students examine these facts, stories and “truths.”

Note the parentheses around “truths.” In some cases, what we see as the truth is based on faulty assumptions. In other cases, as in the recent election, we interpret the facts or assemble the facts in ways that blind us to possibilities we don’t want to see. Or we take as fact information that is little more than fantasy.

Filippo Menczer of Indiana University explains the troubling consequences of that ignorance. Writing about the impact of fake news sites, he says: “Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. … If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?”

Instructors talk about ways to engage students in discussions about the 2016 elections.
Instructors talk about ways to engage students in discussions about the 2016 elections. The Center for Teaching Excellence held four sessions in November about handling hot topics in the classroom.

The columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has long lamented the diminishing weight that facts play in American life, including a belief among some conservatives that facts themselves are biased. We used to agree on a basic set of facts, Pitts says, even if we disagreed on how to act on those facts. Now, people too often dismiss facts they don’t like and cling to “facts” that lack any basis in reality.

That certainly points to the importance of helping students improve their critical thinking. It also points to a need for teaching digital literacy, or the ability to work intelligently in the online world, separating the valid from the invalid, the informational from the promotional, the real from the fake. That’s especially important given a recent study that found that students from junior high to college pay little attention to where information comes from or whether it is valid. They simply consume, often blindly accepting what they find on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, especially if a friend passes something along.

We all have what Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald describe as cognitive blind spots: disconnects between our self-perceptions and intentions, and the way we act toward people different from ourselves. That is, we may see ourselves as equally accepting of all types of people, but our internal biases often sway us in ways we don’t realize.

Banaji and Greenwald don’t examine politics in their research, but it’s easy to apply the idea of blind spots to political leanings and social class. One reason the American political divide keeps growing is that we gravitate toward people who support our own views. Highly educated academics and policy makers rarely have conversations with those in the working class who have grown disdainful and distrustful of institutions like universities, governments and the press.

Charles Camosy of Fordham University made an excellent point in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, saying that academics live in such an echo chamber that they have trouble comprehending views that don’t mesh with their own. The divide between the working class and elite institutions “permeates everything,” he says. “It permeates how news organizations cover stories. It permeates how people think about fundamental questions.”

So what can we do?

The first step is to engage in conversation with our students. Many instructors and students have struggled to have reasoned, rational discussions about the election. Some have simply avoided the issue altogether. That was clear during recent CTE workshops where we worked through approaches to engaging students in difficult conversations. We simply must have those conversations in the coming weeks and months.

The second step is to do something that comes unnaturally for many academics: listen. Camosy put it this way:

“We just don’t do listening very well. We’re not paid to listen. We’re paid to give our views and to teach others about our views. And that’s not very good for dialogue. So we need to get better at intellectual humility.”

We do indeed.

The third step is to engage more meaningfully with people different from us. Academia has been making admirable steps in creating more inclusive environments for women, people of color, and people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. It still has a blind spot, though, in the way it interacts (or doesn’t) with working-class Americans, people without college degrees, rural and small-town residents, and conservatives in general, the overlapping groups that voted for Trump.

Only by opening ourselves up to those conversations can we hope to comprehend broader truths from amid our fortress of facts.

Briefly …

The New York Times recently published an insightful series of stories that follow three students at Topeka High School as they contemplate going to college. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading. … A conservative group has created a website called Professor Watchlist, which it says is intended to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking writes in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of “unlearning” in effecting change.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.