Intense and Illuminating: My Adventure Teaching Humanities 101Karen Southall Watts | Contract Trainer, Pacific Community Resources Self-Employment Program
Two years ago, I wrote an article called We Are the Humanities as part of my research and personal preparation for launching the first ever online Humanities 101 course at my technical college. Like many educators before and since, I pointed out the importance of communications and critical thinking skills that are honed within humanities instruction. Two years later, I am even more convinced, as the business world and educational research demonstrate that many young students and adults still can’t critically analyze information and tell the difference between fact and fake. The communications I see in my role as a business coach are often as flawed as those I see from entry-level students. Additionally, the need to understand and relate to the diverse world remains a reality. Society needs humanities education, whether we admit it or not.
Teaching Humanities 101 to a technical college population uncovered some other realities for me as well. Since survey courses like this are so broad, the discussions reveal more than subject matter mastery or improved research and writing skills.
The open-ended discussions within my Humanities 101 online class provide a window into valuable information for me, my college and perhaps for you as well:
Students are suffering
When I read the Wisconsin Hope Lab paper, Too Distressed to Learn, I found myself nodding along. I knew a lot of our students within the two-year college system were stressed out and struggling. Within classroom discussions, I was able to see this in detail. Students trying to “power through” depression and anxiety, dealing with death, disability, or financial troubles with no external support—that was just a regular week for any one of my classes. Online students often have jobs, children and other heavy personal responsibilities. Burnout becomes a constant state for some.
Online solutions are not complete
At a time when smartphone ownership is practically universal there are still occasionally students who don’t have adequate technology access. Our college in particular still sees a steady stream of students who need to “check-out” a laptop from the library for school work or who have limited Internet access at home. Those who do have good online access for classes may be missing other support services. It’s harder to get things like good tutoring, counseling and advising as an online option. Oftentimes, this is because the systems in place (people, technology, working hours) haven’t been changed in years.
The expectations are off
Because Humanities 101 is an elective, some students (and sometimes other instructors) see it as a minimal-effort course. Almost every quarter I get at least one well read, accomplished student who tries to skip through by doing the absolute minimum. They’re usually smart and submit good answers, but they do nothing else and sort of dare me to call them on this behavior. One student even wrote to the Dean, after grades were posted of course, that they expected an easy course they could do in their “spare time” so they could concentrate on other things. It takes me weeks to get students refocused from checking boxes to engaged learning—and sometimes it never happens.
Creativity is the missing ingredient
Brené Brown, Ph.D. famously said, “Unexpressed creativity is not benign. It metastasizes.”
This might sound overly dramatic, until you meet the typical online technical college student. I require a creative project at the end of my course. This almost always causes multiple cases of panic. Many students tell me they are not creative; this always turns out to be false. Students who have creative hobbies and pursuits admit to ignoring them as they plow through college. Some students find it hard to break away from churning out another formulaic academic paper to really explore their own talents. Each quarter several students involve friends or family in their projects and are often surprised and delighted with the results. I’ll admit grading final projects usually makes me cry. After so much work and effort, to see the open creative hearts of students I only met a few weeks earlier is humbling. Our education system and our regular lives seem geared toward squashing creativity and expression. Yet, at the same time we bemoan the lack of creative workers, problem solvers and entrepreneurs.
Finding the Solutions
Can we close these gaps? Can the student experience be improved by what we learn from the Humanities experience? Yes, I believe so, but only if we are willing to do a few key things.
Educational institutions are known for long, cumbersome decision-making processes. By the time we create a new course, or overhaul an older one, we’ve lost one, two or more batches of students. Personally, I love research and the well thought out solution. However, there comes a time when we are just taking too long to make changes and improvements. Procedure for procedure’s sake is a bad idea.
The majority of my Humanities 101 students will eventually become nurses. I keep this in mind when teaching or modifying my course. In addition to nursing, I seek to understand the other programs students might be pursuing, so I can help them in real time (not some nebulous future date) to see how the subjects we discuss might impact their lives and work. I actively and regularly talk to and collaborate with other faculty and staff at my school. The days of isolated, silo-style departments are over—or at least they should be.
It is not enough to sympathize with students facing difficulties or to simply refer them to the designated office for help. Compassion for our students means we must be willing to act and not just talk. Over the last two years of my Humanities 101 adventure this has meant: modifying assignments, posting parenting tip websites in the open discussion thread, firmly sticking to my grading standards, and at the same time being willing to toss activities or assignments that don’t work—no matter how long I spent creating them or how interesting I find them. I encourage students to give me continual feedback, not just an end-of-course survey, the way we do it in the real world.
Bringing Humanities to the Center
We explain to students that the study of humanities represents investigating how we process and document the human experience. We tell them this study is a way for them to become more well rounded graduates and open-minded thinkers.
For me, teaching humanities allows me to explore the student experience in a unique way. The subject matter encourages students to become more open, and honors me with a view into not only their thoughts on assignments but also their experiences in adult education. This adventure has helped me to uncover more important reasons for colleges to continue to offer humanities courses.
Author Perspective: Educator